Thursday, October 20, 2022

My Reading challenge for 2022 

Lot of Reading, Let writing take over

Its been a while. I've been away from the prose in the writing sense. I've been with the keyboard everyday, I've had my pen and paper near me almost all the time, at an arms length. Although I've been writing, but never on a flowing sense, never more than some random scribblings, study notes yes, but never jotting down my musings, my ramblings, sound of my thoughts bouncing around inside my empty brain, like a steel ball inside a rolling cylinder.

I'll set the ball free now...

This year, 2022, I signed up for a challenge. Read 22 in 22. Basically if I can read 22 books in the calendar year. Although the challenger, my city library, had set aside categories for each of the book I should pick up, like asian author, Caribbean author etc but I chose to ignore that. I just focussed on the count, not category.

Well, I'm happy to report that I completed the challenge last week. I'm very happy, very proud of myself. Never imagined, I'd be able to achieve this but I did. 

Here is my list

People’s history of United States 

I figured I should read up on the history of the country in which I live. I read India After Gandhi when I was in Undergraduate and I loved it. Therefore it made sense to read up on USA now that I'm here and I have known few things. This book was slightly different because its not just history, its people's history. It talks about less known events, like the massive workers' strike throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, because the class division had been a massive problem back then as well. Anyway, I don't remember much about anything else from this book so thats that. 

I just wanted to read up on the Russian revolution and picked up Concise because it'll be just enough to quench my thirst. Yes, I'm a sucker for history. I love the genre. Isn't there a saying about repeating history if you don't learn from it? Well, it applies to me in literal sense. I loved the book. And while reading Concise, I was motivated to just read about Stalin, who came up multiple times, in prominent roles before, during and after the revolution. "Stalin" was a 37hour long audiobook which I finished and I enjoyed it. Next up for me is Stalin Vol-II. Sandwiched in-between was Secondhand, which basically is collection of interviews of soviet sympathizers who could not bear to see the USSR become Russia and were reminiscing the good old days of Stalin and Pravda.

Its okay-ish. Nothing great, not boring either. Just enough spice to keep things going on. Although I do remember cracking up when the "Hitler" story came up. A decent window to the life of someone growing up in South Africa during and post apartheid era.

I just thought it'll be fun to read through some short stories and coming from a science background, I am comfortable with sci-fi. Actually I like it. Yes some stories are decent, some not so much. Some stories are short some not so much. After this big book, I only remember only a handful of stories that I can bring up during a fireside camping chat and amuse bunch of kids. 

Yes, science fiction is cool but real physics on an astronomical scale, cooler. I was fascinated by physics in high school and later when I was preparing for IIT-JEE, so that explains my soft corner for books like these. I can pick and read books like this anytime. If you've a physics bone, however small, give it a try. If it gets complicated for you, leave it and pick something else. Either you derive happiness out of it or don't. Thats okay. 

I only picked this book because of its title. But then I started reading, and I kept on reading. Its the journey of a US memory champion, who only a year ago before his crowning moment, was a journalist covering the US memory tournament competition and interviewing other champions. He was a complete outsider, million miles away from trying anything like this but an ex-memory champion convinced him how easy it is to remember almost everything, he decided to try for himself and voila, he was champion next year.

A memoir. Interesting read. Sheds light on the life of Ghana and how challenging it is. Just like baby turtles born on the shores have an instinct to head towards the ocean, people from interiors of African continent, enduring difficult living conditions in their hometown, have an instinct to move to Europe, in search for better life. And the path ahead is treacherous. Many don't make it but some do. This is the story of one such exceptional guy. 

My first pick of the year. It was a common occurrence  in any popular non-fiction list I picked up. Yes, I was hooked. Truman wanted to keep me guessing about the motivation of the crime, or the connection between the victim and the criminal, until the time he'd disclose it for me, and he succeeded. Book is basically narrating the circumstances behind the murder of a family and subsequent investigation. Very nice read. Thats all I'd say.

My second pick of the year. Although I don't read fiction these days, but I picked it because it was high up in the popularity index in my available book search in the library catalog. I picked this also mostly because of the science fiction aspect of the story. I liked the story, the general idea of "sleeving", however I'd not go out of my way to recommend this to others. Yes, in any story a murder mystery feels like author's compulsion to sell the book, and this one also had one but I was getting tired of the narration and story by the time I was few chapters from the end. I basically hurried through the final 2-3 chapters because at that point I just wanted to switch to a different book. I started watching the netflix series after finishing the book, but wasn't interested after 2 episode. 

This book was highly recommended by the search engine when I was browsing. I had seen the movie long time ago and I remember not liking it because I didn't understand it. But nonetheless I was aware that this movie is deemed a classic and very popular. I thought let me read the book now that my vocabulary has improved and hoping I'll understand it better this time. And yes, thats what happened. 

I normally don't read self help books but I wanted to try something different than non-fiction and history. I loved this one. Although I'm a digital minimalist already, I've since long deleted my FB account, I'm not on twitter or Instagram either, so lot of the things in the book applied to me already. But it has cool tricks to keep you away from mobile. It requires hard work but like the Author states, the reward at the end is tremendous. We've short life, so how you spend your valuable time, counts. Spending time on yourself like learning or improving a personal skill, picking up a hobby or even spending time with family/kid is far far better than browsing nonsensically through other people's feeds in FB or Insta.

There have been 5 major extinction events in the history of Earth. The 6th one is coming, and it has been accelerated by none other than Humans.

A fun read. What do you get when you ask bunch of ridiculous questions to a physicist? You get this book.

Collection of essays, written by a Black father for his son about growing up in US, amid the racial discrimination. Very powerful read.

This basically talks about how the Roe vs Wade decision in the 1990s is at the heart of increased crime rate in US in the 2000s. The decision took abortion away as an option for poor family, who therefore were forced to give birth and raise an unwanted child, whom they neglected because they couldn't afford to raise kids properly, and such kids later on, starting from their early teens, started contributing towards the higher crime rates. This and bunch of other things.

This book opened my eyes towards introversion. Earlier I used to think of being an introvert as a disadvantage, something that should be remedied but boy was I wrong. Introverts have their own special personality traits which in some sense I feel are more desirable than extroverts. The book actually taught me how to be a good parent most importantly. I keep asking my wife to read this same book because it has such good pointers about parenting. 

Brilliant read. I just loved it. I don't understand lot of the things about economy in general and I presume lot of people don't either but this book explains everything in general terms. Starting all the way when money as we know it now started out until the modern times, it charts the evolution explaining why so and so decisions were taken up. Paper currency, gold standard, inflation, recession, great depression and even 2008 housing crisis. Time permitting, I'll read this book again sometime for sure.

I always had disdain for capitalistic society. People become selfish. The objective is to simply hoard and exploit resources. And the more money you have, the more power you can influence. The power to make laws that suits your needs, like lower taxes, so you keep increasing your money and the circle goes on and on. Natural resources, poor people get crushed in between. This book showed how deep the roots of few billionaires go into influencing politics and even instigating mass hysteria, giving common unsuspecting people a narrative that is absurd, one sided, and dangerous to social harmony. But the rich people don't care if everybody else fight among themselves. It creates the distraction they want. 

A very pleasantly surprising book for me. Usually history about world wars talk about the war itself, important events leading upto the outbreak and all the way to the culmination, but no body talks about how the society picks itself up, after you've signed the armistise. Ever thought how Germany as a country, coped with the war after Apr 15, 1945? Hitler and Germany was at the center of WW2, but after Hitler shot himself, Germany had to still exist. Noone talks about the millions of tons of rubble that the netizens had to clean up as the first thing on the road to redemption, how did they do that. What about the sudden influx of freed German POWs from both east and west, about the allied POWs freed, how did German people react to discovery of concentration camps, how to integrate Jews amidst them after this. This book talks about all.

Poetry. It was an average read for me. I'm more into poems, that have word intricacies that just make you stop reading for a sec, because you need a breath to comprehend the depth of the emotion you've just been taken to. This wasn't that for me.


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Monday, June 30, 2014

Email played tricks on me

So, for past couple of days I had been receiving notifications that my corporate email password will expire soon. The kind of person I am, I like to postpone such trivial stuff until  the last day or when the password has actually expired and during one of my refresh action on emails, I get a popup window to change it. Needless to say, I see such emails, and just ignore and move on.
For past couple of months, I had been receiving notifications that our email server will soon be migrated from Zimbra to Exchange. There was no fixed date as such but that we will be notified once the migration is complete. So, here again, I just ignored.

Its Wednesday. It seemed like one of those days when the activity is very poor, like hardly 1-2 emails for the day. I've been minding my own business, trying to get through some of the works assigned to me for the sprint, which ends next week Tuesday. Lately, I had been struggling to make some progress on decrypting smime messages which has an inline attachment. I've been looking in the internet and doing my share of research but all in vain. I just couldn't figure out how some messages are working fine, while others don't.
Finally I decided to send the Openssl user community an email describing my issue. This I did on Wednesday evening. I was hopeful of receiving mountains of replies as the user community is huge and global.
I woke up Thursday and see no new emails in my Zimbra account. Confused and surprised, I thought may be my issue is indeed special. It seemed to me like a trivial one, may be I'm missing some minor changes to fix it but seeing no replies, I thought may be not. Then I shot an email to team members in Atlanta (I'm in California) asking if they have any ideas. No replies. I waited 2 hours. No replies.
Hmm, this is strange.
Now, I work in Android but our app has an iOS version as well which is few months ahead of us in terms of features accomplished. So I thought I'll ask the iOS folks how did they resolve my issue, if they have come across it.
Its Friday now. The football world cup have been keeping me busy and I didn't think too much about no replies to my emails. I thought I should leave the experts alone in their quest for solution to my problem. They must now be scratching their head. I try to search in the corporate directory for email id of iOS folks I knew the name of. I couldn't find. Then I pinged Karishma.

Me: Hi.
Karishma: Hi
Me: I'm having an openssl related issue. Who do you think is the best person to ask?
Karishma: David should be able to help.
Me: Hmm. Well, I think David's reply rate is poor especially if I've sent an email. He doesn't seem to like me :P :P :P
(The smileys were added to reduce the tone to sarcasm)
Karishma: Ha ha. In that case, ask the iOS folks.
Me: I think so too. Can you send me email id of Jonathan and Ismail?
Karishma: Sure. I'll send out an email to them including you, as an introduction.
Me: Sounds good. Thanks.

I resumed my football match thinking any minute I'll be getting the email. 45 mins later, refresh, nothing. 2 hours later, refresh, no new mails. End of day, still no emails. I'm now questioning the attitude of Karishma. This is very unprofessional. Here I'm stuck in an issue and she knows that, yet, she is so arrogant that she doesn't do her part, which is to just shoot an email. I'm cursing myself as well. I shouldn't have left it on her. I should've insisted on asking the email id right there, when I was on IM. She seemed like a nice and responsible person when I paid a visit to the Atlanta office back in May. May be people are more than they show themselves to be.

On Saturday, when checking emails on my phone after my tennis game, I see the email app saying it couldn't connect to the mail server. The password doesn't agree.
I'm like, what!!! I did not change the password, how did this happen? I try to enter my current password, but it kept failing. I'm like, fuck this email app. Must be something wrong with the app. The kind of crappy apps the developers make these days, total disregard to the software quality (I'm a sw developer myself).
Blaming it all on the app, I ignored the error. My world isn't going upside down if I don't receive emails on my phone for 2 days. I'll try to resolve this on Monday. Thinking that, I resumed my tennis game. Then later I played cricket, watched football, played tennis again. All in all, an awesome weekend, as always.
Come Monday. We have daily standup meetings at 11am. I dialed-in but I was the only one on the call. I waited till 11:10, still no one. I hung up then pinged my Boston team members (who schedule the standup) on IM and inquired about the standup. Mark said that the meeting was cancelled and that he had sent out cancel notification earlier this morning.
I refreshed my email page, I see no new mails, let alone a cancel notification.
After this, I'm little suspicious. Surely, this is no coincidence that for some reason I'm not getting emails. I logged into the exchange account but it said my password has expired. So I entered my current password, then new password, then retyped new password but the page is stuck there. It doesn't go further. Then I logged out of Zimbra and tried to log in again. I couldn't login as it said the password expired. It didn't even give me a change password page. Just a failure on the login message.
Keeping myself calm, I thought, I'll create a helpzilla ticket for the support guys to tackle this. I couldn't login to helpzilla because password is incorrect. Fuck! All the bad luck had to converge at the same time same place. Drat!!
Helpzilla page had the phone number for support and I called them up. After explaining the problem, he asked me some security questions and reset my password. I asked if my mail server has been migrated, and sure enough, the reply was affirmative.
I then logged into my exchange account and afterwards setup my outlook. Within minutes the emails get sync'd and started pouring in.

The email I had sent to openssl user group wasn't delivered in the first place. My email message had some attachments which raised its size to what was acceptable to their mail server. So there was the delivery failure message. That explained whey I didn't get the replies.

Then there was David's reply on Thursday. Contrary to my belief, he had actually replied. The issue in my machine wasn't reproducible in his, so he couldn't help much except showing me his results and asking if he was doing things right.

Then on Friday was Karishma's mail introducing me to Jonathan and Ismail. I was wrong about her :P
I felt little guilty of accusing her of negligence. Its good thing that I kept my thoughts to myself.

Then there was the cancel notification.

My email server changed hands sometime early on Thursday and then my password also expired around that time. Double jeopardy. This is my best guess based on the evidence :)

Signing out.

PS: I did manage to resolve the openssl issue. It turned out to be because of message corruption by my TextEdit when saving the email source into a text file.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

My 4ft of Adrenalin Rush

After having been in the Cali bay area I was constantly looking out for some adventure. Puneet, my friend here, whom I'd known from my BlackBerry days in Chicago, was with me on this one. One fine day he came across a groupon for a Hang-gliding lesson+glide session and duly forwarded me for my opinion. It was $80. The money wasn't important for me if I know I'll enjoy this. I have done Skydiving, rappelling, river rafting, jet skiing etc before and they were all worth the money I paid for and in return I enjoyed them too. Its not bad to have your adrenalin rush once in a while. Needless to say I have those when I see pretty girls on a daily basis :)
I agreed and purchased mine. I patiently waited for Puneet to buy his and I poked him everyday until he bought his. I wasn't going to do this alone. I'm not afraid but its just awkward when you show up alone for such events.

There were some hiccups in arranging a weekend to do this. Some weekends, I was busy, and some, Puneet was out of town for work. Since the expiry date was approaching we made an effort to finally settle March 2nd.

The owner website doesn't do much good in giving details about the event. I'm as clueless as anyone else about whats going to happen at the place, how's it conducted etc. Per day there are three slots and 4 persons per slot. One at 8:30am, one at 11:30am and final one at 3:30pm. I booked the 3:30pm but on the morning of 2nd, I received a text from an unknown number stating that today's class is cancelled because of bad weather and to reschedule. Its fine. I rescheduled for the week after, i.e March 9th, same time.

On the morning of 9th, I'm excited. I'm imagining after some basic lessons, I'll be jumping off a cliff or small hill, attached to the glider, and come down to the ground floating. It'll be an amazing experience. I thought of all the pictures and videos I'll have and how I'll show it off to my friends. What a way to grab attention. I felt little sad to think my life has come to this, but then to hell with it. At the end, the number of likes and comments on my facebook profile and cover pic is what matters.

Puneet arrives at my place at 12:45pm and we are on our way by 1pm. The hang gliding is in Tracy, CA which is some 60 miles from my place. Such places are always located way further than civilization. I guess they need to be. I remember my skydiving center in IL was way out in some small town 70miles from my place. Its fine. I'm not too worried. Its a fun outing in a way. We reach there at 3pm. There is just one small cabin behind which there is a hangar. There is nothing in 5 miles radius around the place. We went inside in what looked like a small office. There was no one there. 

"Hello!" I said, as a verbal doorbell. No response. While we were looking around, we hear a toilet flush and then the door on our right opened and we meet Richard. 

"Hey Hi. We are here for the hang gliding." We clarified.
"Ok. But you guys are very early. "
"Yeah. We didn't encounter much traffic on our way here", I said, trying to be funny. He didn't laugh.
"How long does the session usually take?" I asked.
"Umm, usually 2 hours so expect to be done here by 5:30pm".
I was happy to hear that. 2 hours is good enough time for lots of exciting things to do.

"Ok. May I suggest you guys hang out here or may be if you need water or anything else, please feel free to drive around. There is a gas station few miles west. Lets wait for the other 2 people to join us so that we can begin. That way I wouldn't have to repeat myself twice. " He said without any emotions.

We agreed and came out. I was little bit surprised that he was the only person holding the fort here. He was the only guy who is managing everything here. I was expecting a system in place here. Like a small office, a reception area, a small cafeteria, few people roaming around taking pictures, few instructors running helter skelter, some class going on in an adjacent room, some gliding sessions going on outside etc. Nothing. Instead what I got was absolute silence. Few birds may be. Wind and dusts. On our way, I told Puneet how I'd really like to be able to glide alone. No instructor on my back because that just spoils the pic. My skydiving pic is testament to that. I spent most of the time explaining a fat guy on my back than to describe how wonderful the whole experience was. And the fat instructor was in all of my pictures. Damn! But atleast here, I don't see that happening. I don't see any instructors and any gliding session going on here. I just crossed my fingers and hoped Richard will not be behind me when I'm gliding.

We sneaked into the hangar. There were two hang gliders there. Also a military jeep similar to allies in WW2 (I don't think it was the original), two small aircrafts. We took the opportunity to take lots of pictures. We didn't have water so we took the car out to find the nearest gas station. I got a call from Richard at the gas station. He informed us about the other two people arriving so we are all set to start as soon as we show up. Few minutes later we were there. We meet Manpreet and Jho (both females :)). Richard then starts to give us an introduction. He is blabbering about how he is the only hang gliding instructor in US doing this, how this is the only place to hang glide, how he has been asked by instructors from Canada and elsewhere on tips to setup such schools elsewhere, how he has been encouraged to patent his methods and loads of other bull crap. I just had to sit through it. When he said 2 hours, he didn't say he'd waste 15minutes in this. 
Then we go into the hangar. In there, he shows us the basics on how to hold a glider and how to lift it up on your shoulders. The frustrating thing was that each one of us will do the same after he has shown us how to. I'd go in first, lift the glider up on my shoulders. He'd correct myself here and there if needed. Then I put it down and Puneet gets to do it while rest of us watch. And so on. This killed off another 30 mins. Oh God. I'm already losing my patience. The actual gliding better be good.
For the next set of lessons we come out of the hangar, into the open space outside. There was an open space similar to a chopper landing site, in front of the hangar, and there was a short runway on the right. I'd say less than half mile long.
In the open space he shows us how to balance the glider against the wind, how to run with it, and how to hold it while running with it. You have to hold the glider and run hard for the wind pressure under the wings to be enough to lift it up little bit and it will feel lighter, it will feel like its flying, floating to be precise. Just like a big paper plane. We get to do it as he demonstrates. And guess what, one person at a time, while the rest watch. Fucking waste of time. He has two gliders, why not use the fucking second one??
While he is instructing, I look around the place still looking for a cliff or hill to jump off. Fucking nothing. Its flat. There are some huge dumpsters but I don't expect we will be jumping off of them. With my curiosity I ask him if we ever will be able to glide the glider or this is it, we run with it, like a small kid? 
"No No of course we will get to fly. We will be airborne for few minutes. Don't worry This is not it."
Ah, what a relief. Because I've hardly been impressed so far. I wondered how else can I be cheered.

After wasting another 45 minutes with this crappy lessons, when there was nothing else for him to teach, he excused himself and went into the hangar. We all thought he has gone to smoke some fags as he was constantly smoking while giving us instructions. He comes out few minutes later, driving a pick up truck. There was a big flat platform mounted on some wheels attached to the pick-up truck. The platform had some pulleys, ropes, harness, levers etc. I don't know about others but I was still scratching my head trying to solve the puzzle of how we are going to be airborne. Then he carries the glider up to the platform and attaches the various ropes and buckles to it. Then it hit me. He'll be driving the truck in the runway and since we will be harnessed to the glider, when it lifts up, we will go up as well. Fuck me! And thats exactly what happened. While one person will drive the truck up and down the runway, others will take turns on the glider and all the while Richard will be holding the ropes tied to the glider so that our safety is secured. 

My biggest disappointment was, you are floating for less than two minutes. Because thats the time to finish the runway at 20mph. And did I mention the 5-10 seconds on either side of proper floating when you wait for the glider to go up and then see it come down. Absolute waste. By the time you are floating and just beginning to enjoy whatever you can find to cherish, the runway is over and you are back down. And what makes this experience worse is the fact that you are only hardly 4ft above the platform (or ground) when you are at the top of your floating experience. That is it. Thats your adrenalin rush. To be 4ft above ground, attached to a glider which is in turn attached to so many ropes with the moving platform that it cannot go higher than this. It was embarrassing actually. I was trying to show at least little bit of excitement for the pictures and videos. It was easy to shoot because while you are floating, two others are sitting in front of you watching you, and waiting for their turn. Manpreet and Jho were more than willing to take pictures and shoot videos of mine, because Puneet was driving the truck and Richard had to man the glider and prevent it going out of control. Seriously! What a joke!

My next disappointment was Richard. Once you've realized whats going to happen with the gliding experience, you have to find ways to extract some positives out of it. Its like football managers. Even when they play badly and loose the game, in the press conference they speak of taking positives out of this performance and focus on next match. When I saw the gliding scene in front of me, the moving truck, 4ft, 90secs etc, I was dejected, heart broken and utterly demoralized but there were some positives that I had to find out from this experience. I don't want to leave empty handed. I looked around. These are the only 4 people who know of the misery. And this experience is embarrassing for them as well. Can I use the pictures and videos to my advantage? None of my friends know what 'actually' happened here. 4ft can easily be shown as 40ft. 2 minutes of floating can be stretched to 20 minutes. The truth can be adjusted. The likes and shares and comments can be conned. When it was my turn to ride the glider, I handed my phone to Jho. I instructed her to take the video in landscape mode (because I like it that way), and to never never show the (red) platform. The platform shouldn't be in any scene, else my trick is exposed. Secondly, the floating scene should be exclusively me in blue sky background. If the background is only clear blue sky, how high you actually are becomes irrelevant. People will see the glider attached to my back and would know what I've been upto. Excellent plan. There was only one problem. When I saw the video afterwards, my short excitement went bust, like a flicker of fire against a fire extinguisher. In all of my pictures and the whole of my video, Richard is standing by my side, holding the glider while I'm floating. How ridiculous does that look? Here I'm trying to fool my friends but I cannot explain while I'm 40ft above ground level, how come there is a dude beside me, who seems to be 'not' floating. Whats going on there?

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

New Years Eve - 2014 in Colorado

How the trip came to existence: 

I moved to California from Chicago in late September. Needless to say my social circle in Cali wasn't much when Christmas/New years holidays came around. So I was reliant on my friends from Chicago and moreover, I missed them and wanted to spend time with them during the holidays. It was during Thanksgiving holidays that I thought to plan ahead and set up something for new years. I had Vegas in mind and since then, I'd been reminding Ritesh, Rastogi and Sreejit for making arrangements. While they kept procrastinating, I witnessed the rise in flight ticket and hotel prices. I wasn't too worried because in the worst case I can take a bus from San Jose/ SFO or I can just drive, plus the hotel room charges when split between 4-5 people, doesn't hurt much. It was only for them that the flight tickets were a concern. They had their own reasons to delay but the bottom line was that it wasn't until Christmas eve that we all came together to plan something out.
Vegas was out of question becuase flights from Chicago were no less than 600-700 bucks. Ritesh and Sreejith were hesitant. Rastogi had just been employed after months of trying so it was unreasonable for him to shell out buttload of money on this. It was finally of no use to plan something 2-3 months ahead of time when you've got friends like them. Sigh!
I proposed to spend new years in Chicago and that I don't mind travelling which would also save money but Ritesh was against it. He had a record that he has not spent new years in Chicago since he has been there which is 3 years now. He wanted to maintain that record. Driving to nearby places is also not viable because quite simply, there are no decent places around Chicago to spend new years.
Ritesh and Sreejith looked up in internet and found out that Puerto Rico is the second best place to spend new years. The first being New Orleans which we had already covered in 2012. Although Chicago-PR is still 600-700 bucks but other expenses, like hotel , club cover fee etc is cheaper than Vegas.
When I looked up SFO-PR, I lost all hope. The tickets were atleast 1000 bucks and its one whole day of only travelling. More than the price, its the 12hr travel time one way that bumped me off. When I'm spending a grand, I don't want to spend only 2 days in PR and another 2 days in air.
I sensed that someplace between Cali and Chicago would be ideal. I had Texas in my mind mostly because of the warm weather. Sreejith lived in Tx for 2 years and he wasn't too excited about it but when Denver was thrown into the pot, Chicago sensed a possibility. I wasn't too keen on going to Denver and I had my reasons. First of all, weather. No body from California would go to Denver in the middle of winter. Its insane. Its actually the other way round. California is warm and sunny. It was only the other day I went out for groceries in a t-shirt and shorts. Denver reminded me of Chicago where I'd be wrapped in 4 layers of clothing whenever I go out. Even to sit on my patio, I needed a blanket and hot cup of tea. Second, whats Denver special for? New Years? I'd like to see that top-50 list of New Years celebration in US which has Denver in it.
Chicago decided Denver is the best option for them. They can drive which would allow them to return to work on 2nd Jan, plus everything else is cheap, plus its beautiful and above all, they'll not be in Chicago. Weather-wise, it was an upgrade. I think with the cold in Chicago, everywhere else you go, you feel warmer. That leaves me. The only thing keeping me into this was the chance to hang out with my old buddies. I don't like cold, I don't fancy winter at all but the warmth of friends was comforting and it was either Denver or staying home. I chose former. I booked my tickets. I was to arrive in Denver on 28th Dec (Sat) at 9:30pm and depart on 1st Jan (Wed) at 3pm. Ritesh and co. will start driving at 6am and hopefully they'll be there when I land.

Saturday, Dec 28th: Denver, CO

I woke up today with a sense of purpose. A good feeling that I'm going out for the holidays. Taking leave from work wasn't difficult. My manager, before she went on vacation, had assured me of time off if I needed one. I had assurances from Ritesh that they'll be in Denver by the time I arrive but I know them better. When he said they plan to start at 6am or may be even earlier I knew then that this is not happening. On normal weekends, they never get out of bed before 11am and 6am is a far cry. To be able to wake up at 5, they must be in bed by 10pm which is not going to happen. They are 4 of them and if a whisky/rum bottle is thrown in, they'll actually go to bed at 5am. I've lived those moments myself in my 3yrs in Chicago with them and boy, do I miss those nights. After I woke up, I thought to ask if they already left but I did not bother. Even if they start at 10am, there isn't much I can do from here, except board my flight and arrive at the usual time. I took the train to the airport. SFO is 50mi from my home and San Jose is only 5 but I didn't find a cheap and convenient flight from there so had to fly from SFO. On reaching the airport I found out my flight is 30minutes delayed. That was actually a relief because that meant I had to wait less in Denver airport.
I am in Denver now and its 10pm. I pinged Ritesh for status. They are  2-3hrs away. Ritesh, Rastogi and Sreejit are accompanied by Varun (Rites/Rastogi's undergraduate friend) and Zain (Sreejit's friend). I got the hotel info from Ritesh and before I took a cab, I thought to ask the hotel if they have a shuttle service to/fro from airport. As a matter of fact, they did. After some inquiries and couple of minutes of waiting I found their shuttle van and got in. It barely had any space left and It was packed after I took up the passenger seat in front. A few yards ahead, another couple, who also were waiting for the shuttle, didn't take it lightly that they got a shuttle after waiting 45mins and then its full. The dude was seriously pissed off and before he finished expressing his feelings he slammed the rear view mirror on the passenger side (where I was sitting) and broke the glass. I wasn't hurt but before I could hurl some abuses, he was already gone. The driver, a young women working for the hotel front desk, was equally shocked. It was pouring down that night and snow everywhere. The cold is back. Damn! I'm shivering already. Denver, you better have something fun for me. I'm from Cali, after all.
Soon, I'm in my hotel room. Nice and warm. I quickly changed into my PJs, tucked myself in a blanket and turned on the TV. I'm warming my bed but I can't sleep because I know Ritesh and Co. will be here in couple of hours. I didn't want to wake up soon after I'm asleep. That leaves a bad feeling in me. Alas, I get the call. They ask me to come down and come along for dinner anywhere nearby. I denied. I was just too comfortable and lazy to come down now when they could just instead carry some to-gos and we all can eat in the room. That they did and finally we all meet. I am introduced to Varun and Zain, and I was glad to see familiar faces in Ritesh, Sree and Rastogi. Good old times are back again. We had food, booze, TV, cards and some great company. The next 4hrs of fun was worth the whole trip. Tons of gossip, usual taunts, jokes both poor and awesome, under influence, win or loose, it was a fun filled quality time. By the time we all went down to sleep land, it was 5am.

Sunday, Dec 29th: Driving from Denver to Glenwood Springs

I do not suffer hangovers and I'm very irregular in my sleep hours. I woke up at 6:30am, thanks to a phone call from my brother, back in India. After the call, it was Liverpool's day at the Etihad stadium for a 1-on-1 fight with Man City. I couldn't miss this game even if I could. I'm totally immersed in the game and soon enough Reds score. I'm jumping up and down in the room, albeit very quietly. Fist bumps into air, imaginary punches and kicks but remaining within the confines of silence, not to wake up my sleeping friends. My efforts are in vain as Varun is up. He is now enjoying the match with me and soon Sree joins in. Sree and Rastogi are football followers so I didn't have to explain the game. Although we lost 2-1, it was an entertaining match nonetheless. Kudos to Liverpool for putting up a fine show. Few days ago City pasted Arsenal 6-3 and it was part dull, not to mention the most boring match ever that followed few days later, Arsenal-Chelsea but Liverpool didn't disappoint me. They created doubts in Man City's heart that they can loose too. The loss did hurt but it was not much of any damage. The Merseyside has played some good football against other teams and they had the cushion to loose to Man City and not hurt their top-4 ambitions.
The brunch happening in a nearby ihop, we made a pitstop at a walmart store because Rastogi needed a sun glass. He forgot his in Chicago and didn't want his pictures in the backdrop of beautiful Colorado mountains without a shade enhancing his handsomeness. Few extra awesomeness,  25 bucks only.
I was on the driving seat for the trip to Glenwood Springs. Staying in Aspen was very expensive and GS is 50mi away from Aspen. The choice was easy. I didn't partake much in planning out stuff. Zain only seemed to enjoy it or maybe he was forced into it seeing that everybody else is so lazy.
Oh Colorado didn't disappoint. Picturesque snow covered mountains on either side, valleys, rivers, tunnels. The drive had everything. Six best friends, with 4 of them somehow managing to fit themselves in the back seat, good and loud music and view outside to die for. Perfect opportunity to stop at a gas station and click some snaps. Everybody anticipates a breathtaking profile picture. Group pictures are formality, selfies is the new trend. We encountered Mt Evans scenic drive off the I-70 and it was criminal to let go of opportunities for more selfies. Even though the sign board said the road to the summit of Mt Evans is closed, we didn;t care. Lets follow the drive as long as we can. It was not a bad call. The drive is what matters. Driving uphill on the snow covered roads and hills left right and front, it all made it memorable. But we are not to trust on our memory and relied on DSLR instead. Finally we reached the frozen lake and the logs of wood with 'Closed' written in lock letters. The chilled wind gusts outside did not deter us to come out of the SUV, and click pictures. Everybody is looking for the perfect background and the signature pose to go with it. We are instructing whoever is holding the camera about the angles, and lighting, zoom and focus and everything in between. Group and selfies alike, each picture is taken with a passion. The cameraman thinks he is a professional and the dude in front of him thinks he is Mr Handsome. The sun is fast going down and temperature is dropping like we drop saliva when we see a bikini clad damsel. Time to head back. Inside the car, everybody is blowing into their fingers and each others' ears.
It was 9pm when we reached Glenwood Springs. After it gets dark, when the scenic views are not visible anymore and the visibility is confined to the range of headlights, which was very very poor by the way, it doesn't matter whether you are driving in Colorado or some highway in Indiana or Iowa. From 6pm onwards, my views were only of the highway roads and vehicles in front of me.
In Glenwood, we booked two rooms. After dinner in a nearby Thai restaurant, it was time to setup the booze, card games, TV and tons of garbage discussions. We broke off at 4am for bed, little earlier for our standards.

Monday, Dec 30th: Skiing is busted but Aspen and Hot springs rocked.

I woke up early, but it doesn't really matter. When the rest of your entourage doesn't wake up until another 3-4hrs, you are on your own actually. I kept myself busy with TV and soccer news. At 11, we left for breakfast and from there, went to the ski rental place. Its 12:30pm. The store owner saw the crowd that we were and was concerned. The ski place is open till 4pm and by the time we are done with fittings etc, it will be 2pm. Do we really want to ski today? Do we really want to shell out 60 bucks for ski pass and another 50 for rental, just for 2 hours of skiing? I don't think so. Promising each other that we will start the day tomorrow at 8am so that we have full day of skiing, we left the store. Again, I wasn't too optimistic but the thought that everybody wants to atleast ski before leaving Denver, gave me a small hope that may be the folks will be able to leave the hotel at 8.
Now, what to do next? We had the whole day ahead of us. Me made some inquiries for snowmobile rentals but all in vein. It was booked everyplace and the ones where it was available, it was too far for us to make it in time for their tour. So now, skiing and snowmobile, both are busted.
We went to Aspen. Ritesh and Sreejit had heard alot about the place. No one else knew about Aspen before the trip. Aspen did not disappoint. It is a very small city, comparable to a suburb of Chicago but surrounded by snow covered hills. The place was buzzing with pretty girls. They don't know what cold is because their clothes did not cover their legs. There was a hill directly overlooking the city and it was filled with skiers. A few blocks away, there was an ice rink and cute little girls were showing off their skating skills. Then there was 100-odd years old heritage hotel. I thought it'd be a museum of some sort, turned out its a proper hotel with rooms and business like any other hotels. We went in and clicked some pictures. It was getting cold and we were hungry. Ritesh wanted to eat Indian. He is a big fan of samosas, momos etc and regularly ventures to Indian restaurants to satisfy his cravings. A Nepalese restaurant was near Glenwood Springs we we decided to head back.
In the restaurant we saw Martina Navratilova. We were into our food when some blonde women went to the front desk and picked up a box, which I suppose was full with her order. Nobody else in the restaurant bat an eyelid. Rastogi drew out attention to the lady and said she is Martina. Martina who? Sreejit and Ritesh were not sure but Varun and Zain supported Rastogi. Is she, is she not? Not to mention we were all trying to sneak a glance of her. Her back was to us. Before we got the second glance of her, she was on her way out and  yes, this time everybody agreed it was her. She was already out and in her car so there was no point chasing her. We are decent people after all and we are not paid for this. Just to make sure that we indeed came across a celebrity this close, we asked the waiter who helped her with her box and he said it was her, Martina N. I'm positive she came for Aspen. There is nothing out there anyway.
Glenwood springs has a hot water natural spring. With nothing better to do, we decided to soak ourselves in some hot springs. I had been to a natural hot water spring before, near Manali in India and I was utterly disappointed. Manali springs was going to be my first experience and I had imagined I'd see a hole in the ground from where hot water would be pouring out and the place properly built for tourists to see the natural springs in action. Instead when I went there, I saw a small size pool, not even a proper swimming pool size but I'd say three bath tubs length and width filled with hot water. People said the actual hole is way up in the hill and that they have made arrangements to collect that hot water in here. This is the hot springs. What a waste. There were loads of half naked dudes and kids playing in the pool and it was very congested. There are billions people in India and every tourist attraction is overloaded with tourists. So was this one. I went into the pool but I had to be careful. If I stretch my arms and legs too far, I'd touch the dude in front of me. And the water, it was so dirty, even a bacteria wouldn't survive. It was very disgusting feeling and I got out as soon as I can.
Compare that experience to this one. When I heard hot water spring, it didn't excite me much, thanks to Manali. But this one was far better. The pools were huge. Almost the size of 2-3 olympic swimming pools put together. The water was chlorinated and Sulphurized so it was bluish and most importantly clean. Above all, there were so many scantily clad women, it was a treat for the eyes. The water was warm. There were three sections with water temperature maintained at 30, 40 and 50 degrees. I liked it. I could stretch my arms and legs, swim, dive, float or even sit while partially submerged. And there were shower and locker services, just like any other swimming pool facility. I had forgotten to take off my contacts before I got into the pool and I paid the price. After few dips and underwater swimming, I realized I've lost my lenses somewhere in there. There goes my perfect HD quality picture of bikini clad women bathing live. Damn!
We all loved the experience. We finally had to leave at 10pm because it was closing time.
Back to the room, we setup our usual hangouts with booze, TV, playing cards and nonsense gossips.

Tuesday, Dec 31st: Skiing and Aspen.

A fine day to ski. Bright sunny and snowfall the day before. It was our plan to head out by 8am and be done with rental by 9 and then ski the rest of the day. We all got up at 9 and with 6 people getting ready one after another, it was already 10am. Then there was the breakfast. The rental guy had given up on us and for the last time, as a last resort, he gave Zain a call to check on us. We had our boot fittings yesterday to save time today and he had everything setup and I don't blame him to go after his potential customers. Only problem was, we were his potential customers.
Boy, was he relieved to see us. Since we had already checked out of our hotel, the car was full of bags and we couldn't fit the skies. The rental guy offered to keep our luggage. A small sacrifice for his business. We loaded up our boots and skies. All of us rented trousers and jackets and except me, everybody else got helmets as well.
None of them had skied before. I had done once, when I was in Chicago and that too, 3 years ago. So I had a feeling of superiority in the group. I'd not miss a chance to tell them that I could ski in this slope, whenever we'd come across a ski hill. I offered to instruct them on how to ski once we are out there and that they could save some money on lessons. I was very confident and for the right reasons.  When I skied for the first time, I did take lessons but I learned very quickly and after an hour I was sliding down bigger and bigger slopes. I told them helmets are unnecessary but they were too cautious. They looked funny in helmets so I didn't object.
So off we go to the ski place. Sunlight ski resort in Glenwood Springs. I helped Rastogi put on his boots. He was really struggling. I really needed to pee. I didn't get a chance when we were having breakfast because we were in a hurry. It skipped my mind when in the rental store and when my bowels called, I had three layers of clothing over my pee-pee. At the resort, I frantically raced towards the ticket place and found a restroom. I relieved myself. Out in the beginners slope, I showed them how to put in your feet into the skies. While they were relaxing at the top and busy taking pictures, I thought I'll have a go at the slope. I positioned myself properly and then let myself slide. I lost control midway and fell down. It was not a normal fall but I fell down on my back, then slid few yards on my ass and then rolled few times and finally ended up on my sides, in a very awkward position. I then struggled little bit to use to my poles to unlock my skies. What a sight it was for my friends. Laughs aside, when they saw this is their mentor, they immediately signed up for the lessons. $80 per person. I kept telling them its unnecessary and that I'll soon find my confidence and ski like I did the last time but it fell on deaf ears. I didn't demo my skills properly. They were concerned not to injure themselves and finally I let them take lessons. I was soon able to ski without falling ever again. And this time I tried using the poles occasionally to pick up some speed when I'm sliding. Some of my friends were able to join me on the slope.
At the end of the day, I think it was a good idea for them to sign up for lessons. The instructor was real patient and was guiding them step by step and I could see Ritesh and Rastogi, the most scared of the lot, gain some confidence and slide the slopes of their own, without any fear. Zain was a quickest to learn and was quite smooth. Sreejit was very audacious, never afraid of falling down. That has always been his attitude. Overall, skiing was a good experience. I'd have preferred snowmobiling since I had skied before, but something is better than nothing.
We came back to the hotel and after couple of minutes rest, we headed to Aspen for the new years celebration. The weather was bad. It was snowing and the drive from Glenwood Springs to Aspen was very painful. I was driving and I had to be very cautious. We were in Aspen by 11:30pm. A large bonfire was setup in a park in the middle of the city and there was a crowd of some 2,500 people. They had all gathered to witness the fireworks. We clicked some pictures of us and others and then at the stroke of midnight, the fireworks began on the skiing hill. It was nice, the crackers glowing up the snow hill in the back and it made for a beautiful spectacle. I wish I had been with a girl, either girlfriend, wife or just friend, instead I was with 5 other single dudes. It hurts a bit, to go to romantic places and occasions like this, and turn your head around to see dudes in your company while everybody else is with his girlfriend.
One thing I did notice is the crowd mostly comprising of Caucasians. That too, mostly European Caucasians. It is indeed a different town. No Indians! Everywhere you go in US, you'll find few Indians knocking about. But not here. Also, very few blacks. Strange place this. It has not been touched by desies. We were the only one. I was happy. Aspen is definitely one of the possible destinations in my list for a second visit.

Wednesday, Jan 1st: Murphy's law.

What makes a trip memorable? The things that you did, the friends you were with, the food you ate or the places you stayed? I'd say, an incident on a large scale. So far, our trip had been without one. Sure, there were ups and downs, there were some poor plannings and some great ones, we did something and we missed some, but none on a large scale that would make me ecstatic or cringe when I look back on this trip. It was in store for me, until this last day.
My return flight to SFO was at 3pm from Denver. Glenwood Springs is 2h:30m drive away from Denver. We wanted to spend the night of 31st in Aspen and that required us to stay in GS. I was a bit concerned. For me to be able to catch my flight, we had to start from GS at 11:30am, after breakfast. Which meant that we need to wake up by 9am latest. I was less optimistic we'd get up that early given that we will return late from Aspen and we'll be drunk. But Ritesh assured me we'll make it. I still had my concerns. For the past 3 nights we all are going to bed not before 5am, after we've indulged ourselves with booze and card games. This night will be no different. Hoping for the best, I let it flow.
It was a surprise that we were able to checkout from the hotel by 11am. To save time, we had our breakfast in Subway and by noon, we were on our way to Denver. Estimated arrival time 2:10pm. Perfect.
The drive was, as mentioned earlier, beautiful. This time we had the daylight. So we clicked pictures, shot videos etc. We were 100mi away when the weather suddenly changed from bright sunlight to horrendous snowfall. Visibility was reduced to less than 50 yards and we had to slow down to avoid skidding. I still had hope. We had pressed hard for the drive until now, and that had saved us another 10-15mins. That hope vanished when we soon encountered heavy traffic. Traffic that was stand still. I could see cars one after another, as far as my vision permitted me and the pace, even a snail would have beaten us. I thought there is still hope for me. May be its only few miles, after which the highway is clear. But that wasn't the case. It was a terrible jam. There had been an incident, with a truck skidding off the highway. Its 2:30pm and I'm still 100mi from Denver. The only hope I had left was of some divine intervention. The weather this bad, I thought the flight may be delayed, giving me some space. I checked the status but it was on-time. I thought to wait until 2:45pm.
Its 2:45 and the flight is still on-time. Damn you! With no hope left, I tried to change the flight but couldn't do it through my phone so I called Southwest customer service. Believe me, I was on hold for 20minutes, while they played all sorts of adverts, claiming Southwest is the best airline, with best service, best deals, most efficient and bla bla bla. The irony of the situation made me laugh. Finally a women answers the call. I explain to her the situation. She put me on hold again, to check for next available flights. And then, we entered a long tunnel. Any other day and time, I'd have appreciated the beauty of it but right now, I was counting seconds. I knew I'll loose the connection anytime now. My heart, full of prayers and fingers tightly crossed, I waited to hear a voice on the other side. Instead I heard a beep. The call had disconnected because of no network. Fuck.
I couldn't do anything else until I'm on the other side of this tunnel. A long tunnel and our moving speed less than 5mph, made it the most boring stretch of the drive. It was already 3pm when I was able to call Southwest again. Again, another 20minute session of their adverts later

SW: Hi, this is Jennine from Southwest. How can I help you?
Me: Hi. My name is XYZ and I was to catch the 3:10 flight from Denver to SFO but I'm stuck in traffic and I don't think I can make it. I'd like to change the flight but before I do that, can you please check if the flight is on-time or delayed?
SW: Sure...give me a moment while I check.

A moment later...

SW: Sir, the flight has already left.
Me: uh oh....alright. Can you please check if I can take some other flight today.
SW: Umm.... I only have availability on the 9:10pm flight.
Me: Yeah, Lets do that. I don't think I have any other option.

Now we have 6hrs to make it to the airport. Plenty I suppose. More than me, my friends were relieved. They all had been holding their restroom emergencies because they didn't want to delay the drive any more. Some were hungry, some thirsty and all of us needed to empty our bowels. We took an exit and found out a small cafe. A glass of hot chocolate when its snowing outside, had its own charm.
Soon, we were on the road again. The highway cleared up after 10 odd miles. We were on the outskirts of Denver by 5pm. Since we had time till 9, we decided to go for dinner. Because of Ritesh and Rastogi, we looked up the best Indian restaurant in Denver and found one in some Bombay food, or something similar. At 5:45pm, we were in the restaurant ordering food.
Its 6:30pm and the appetizers have just arrived. Now I'm starting to panic. For a 9pm flight, I need to be in airport by 8pm latest. That means we need to leave the restaurant by 7:30pm as its 25miles from the airport.
Its 6:45 and there is still no sign of our entrees. The thought that there is a possibility I might miss 9pm flight as well, crept in my mind, and I'm growing restless. This is not good.  I don't want to look like an asshole demanding the food to be hurried up. Its a classy restaurant and we are classy people. Finally I inquired about it and the server said it will be on the table anytime now. The food arrives at 7pm and we are finished eating by 7:30. Ritesh then complains about his upset stomach and that he needs to use the toilet. Sreejit follows the suit. I'm cursing them while we all are having a laugh at my situation. I prepared myself for a touch-and-go possibility. Finally we are driving again. Ritesh is riding the car like he is flying and I'm in the back seat, fists tightly clasped and eyes intently fixed on the time.
I'm in the airport at 8:15. Goodbyes and hugs later, I'm running towards the check in kiosk inside. While I'm printing my boarding pass, I look up to see the status and gate info of my flight

Flight#          Going to            Scheduled           Gate #              Status        
1139              SFO                  9:10pm               C32              Now 11:50pm

WTF!!!! 3hour delayed!!!! Where was the delay when I wanted one? This is fucked up. Suddenly my arms and legs are numb. No point with the haste now that I've plenty of time. The days event flashed in front of my eyes. All that frustration, anger, haste, everything was a waste is this was going to be the end result. What would Ritesh and co think about it. Same way as I feel. Absolutely gutted.
I took my boarding pass and headed to security check. I went to my gate and thought to ask if there are flights for San Jose. I had forgotten to ask for San Jose alternative when I rescheduled in the evening. San Jose is more convenient. The airport is much closer to my place, more like 5 miles, so Raj, my friend in Sunnyvale will have less trouble picking me up. Its a huge ask to come pickup your friend at 1:30am from SFO airport which is 35miles away. Raj was still fine with picking me up from SFO in case San Jose does not work out. But I desperately wanted SJC to pan out. The Southwest agent behind the desk said there was a 8:55pm flight to San Jose which is now delayed to 9:55pm and she will put me on standby for that flight. Thank god for flight delays. "I'll take my chances", I said, and went to the SJC gate.
Fortunately I got that San Jose flight. Raj picked me up from the airport at 12 and that was the end of my eventful trip to Colorado.
Happy new year.

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Sunday, December 1, 2013

US Route66- Day 7, Sept 23, 2013 Monday. Bottle tree ranch, Santa Monica pier

I woke up this morning feeling good. Today is going to be the last day of my epic road trip. Tonight, I'll be sleeping in my friend's place. Its going to be a good day.
The only place to visit today was the bottle tree ranch. I came to know about this place when seeing An Idiot Abroad, a British TV show made by Ricky G and Stephen M with Karl P. They are absolutely funny guys. They are the sort of guys who exhibit typical British sense of humor which I admire a lot. The bottle tree ranch was definitely in my wish list when I sat down a week ago, planning 66.
I had my breakfast in a nearby cafe. The ranch is couple of hours drive away, so I started driving again, on the road, on the highway. I entered California soon and the first thing on the road was Mojave county and Death valley. Funny thing about Death valley that I was watching an episode of Roadies, the Indian version of The Amazing Race and similar. There are bunch of people, doing tasks, vote outs, politics, bad mouth, friendships and betrayal. To keep the episodes interesting, there are some crazy people thrown in of course. And in this season, there was this one dumb girl. I don't remember the name, I think Divya or something but important thing is that she was dumb stupid girl. In this particular season, the roadies, as the people were liked to be called, were visiting USA and stopping at major cities, doing tasks and moving along. And in this episode they were doing a task and the setup was in Death Valley. This is what the girl said in the episode...

"This morning we received a scroll in which we were asked to get dressed and head to Death Valley for our next task. We were all clueless about the task and then the location, Death Valley! I didn't know what to expect but I was a bit scared. Will we be dead in Death Valley?"

And that is forever itched in my head. She butchered Death valley for me. This place is never going to intimidate me in my life because every time I'd hear the word Death valley, this would remind me of this stupid comment and I'd laugh. Yeah of course having a task setup in Death valley must be a ploy to kill the contestants, because the name of the place says it all. Idiots!

I kept thinking of this scene every time I saw a sign board saying Death valley, take this exit, Welcome to Death valley national park, Mojave County, the place of Death valley, driest place in the world.....funniest comment in my head.

One can clearly see the difference between California and other states. As soon as you enter, its valleys all around. One hill after another. One time you are pushing up a hill, another time you are sliding down a downhill. Remarkably different. Some stretches were so steep, there were sign boards saying to turn off car a/c to avoid engine over heating. I need not worry because I rarely used it in my trip. Slide open the windows a bit, and its natural a/c. I must say that I did use the a/c between 1-4pm, thats when its the hottest. But the morning drive was bit cooler. Good thing that my car came off the hill drive fine. I was already assured of my tires, wise thing that I replaced all, but everything else went ok.

I arrived at the tree ranch. There were 2-3 people knocking around taking pictures, but otherwise it was a quiet place. I like places like this. It brings peace of mind. Serene. But here were interesting things to see. First of all, there are all sorts of garbage bottles in there, plastic or glass. And I think as a mark of leaving their impressions, some people bring in there own bottles, and stick them up on the hangars, instead of throwing them in a bin. I don't know if it can be called an art. I mean, it is some form of it. But its  just a buildup of waste. Apart from the bottles, there were some old typewriter, wind speed indicators, campus, nails, maps, broken furniture. There was a shady cabin but nobody was in there. I don't expect the owner of the place living here, let alone someone else. You don't have a pleasant backyard to look into if you live here, right.

Gotta move on now. Few more hours of driving and I'll be in Santa Monica. As I approached the nearby bigger cities, there was heavy traffic. I was used to two lane highways with scant vehicles ahead and behind, for past 5 days, but now suddenly there is 5-6 lane highway with hundreds of cars around. The flow was still good, I wasn't going below 50mph anytime, but there were lots of vehicles. Welcome to California.

Bright sunny days, packed highways, hot and humid, polluted air, expensive gas and lots of beaches. California here I come. Soon I was in Santa Monica pier. It was monday after noon, yet there was a decent crowd. I couldn't find a parking spot nearby so had to park a little further. I walked to the pier and found the Route66 sign board. This is it. I've made it. There was a crowd and people were piling up to take their pictures. And most of them didn't even deserve to take the picture with the 66 sign because they didn't do the drive, did they? I, most of them all, deserved it. They should've made way for me. They should've taken my picture. I waited for couple of minutes and found a free window. I handed the phone a nearby spectator and he obliged to take my picture. Job well done! 66 is done and off my list.
Now that I'm on the other side, I reminisced my train of thoughts before I started on the road. I'm although very safe driver, but I do not trust others. There are many assholes out there. This being a 2400 miles trip spanning over a week, I was very worried that I'll be in a road accident. Thankfully, except for the burned out tire, everything else was fine. Also the tire incident happened outside the highways which was a blessing.
I thought to keep an email ready to be sent to Ritesh, my Chicago friend, in case there is an emergency, and the email would contain my family member's contact number and addresses along with username/passwords of my various accounts. I trust him that he would do the right thing because if I were in his place, I'd have done the same. I was hugely relieved that I will not be needing this email now, at least till my next such big adventure. I was very pleased with the trip, personally and I look at it as an achievement. Something that I'll cherish for a long time. Very few people fortunate enough get to do 66 and now I belong to that club. The trip was over about time when I was getting frustrated. It had been a week already and that too, alone.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

2 days in the California DMV office

I've just moved from Chicago to California and I needed to change my car's title and registration, as well as get me a California licence. I read online that one has to do this within 20 days of taking residency in the state. My current Illinois plate is valid till Feb next year, and its only October, so I thought to delay my registration work as much as I can. Typical Indian mentality, you know. I try to extract maximum benefit out of everything :)
Considering that the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is very busy for any American office establishment, with most of the employees taking vacations and all that, I thought it'd be safe to get these things done just before the holiday season kicks off. So I booked the appointment for 21st Nov 2013, Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving. I picked 3pm as I thought, I'd be in office that day and if I leave around 2pm, I'll beat the traffic. See, not only am I an astute planner, I'm cost effective too. I always look out for ways to save money and time. Important. Great. Booking is done, and I couldn't be more proud of myself. I thanked heavens for bestowing me with intelligence. What'd I've done, if I were a moron!

Its Wednesday, the 20th. I prepared my paper works, looked up online for the list of required documents, arranged them in the order of preferences. My backpack contains my work laptop and a folder of documents. I knew I do not have to give a driving test but I'll need to pass in my written exam. Something that I've been through already, when I moved from Florida to Illinois. I found out the CA driving manual pdf. It was a huge file, as usual. I did started studying seriously first few pages but then soon started to quickly glanced through the pages, hitting 'page down' key after every 5 seconds. What information I read from the initial pages were very ordinary and usual stuff. Like pedestrians have right of way when crossing, bikers and motorcyclists have same rights etc etc. I'm smart enough to know such things already, plus I boast of being a very safe driver. One speeding ticket being an exception, my record is otherwise clean. Plus I'm a very nice guy. I care about pedestrians, bikers and motorcyclists and their interest is always on my mind when I'm driving :) Its a shame to my smartness that I need to study such trivial things. So thats it. I went to sleep.

Its Thursday, the 21st, 2pm. I dropped an email to my team that I'll be out of office rest of the day, and then left. As planned, there was little traffic. At 2:30, I'm in the DMV office. As I went in, I saw a familiar scene. Typical office hustle bustle, loads of people, both old and young. Then there were two lines. One for appointments only, one for without appointments. I smiled at myself and took my place in the appointments only line. I condescendingly looked at the people in the other line, with a mischievous smile. Yeah bitch! I'll be out of here before you even see the service lady at the other side of the desk. My chest automatically taking in few extra ounces of oxygen, the only thing missing was my fist thumping on it. I noticed a placard, "The wait time for non-appointment holders is approx 1hr 50mins". Did somebody say I'm a genius?

The lady at the counter greets me. She checks my papers and tells me to get my car checked by the DMV officer. I drove around the building and at the back, was a lane for vehicle inspection. I had 3 cars in front of me. The second car had two motorbikes in a trailer and it took the DMV officer forever to get that checked out. The officers couldn't have been more confused. There were people going in and out of the building and nobody seemed to know what they were doing. Anyways, the car in front of me was blocking the view. It took 40 minutes before my turn came. The officer was an Indian middle age guy, possibly south Indian as evidenced by his mustache. Or it could have been Movember thing, but I doubt at his age, he has got the appetite for this sort of thing. He followed routine process, check odometer, VIN, licence plate number and registration etc. I think the officers were thrown off their comfort zone when they saw trailer with motorbikes. Like a robot who is programmed for making coffee in a particular machine but gets confused when it sees a different machine. I went in the building with my papers. I went to a corner and filled out my DL forms and noticed that the car verification form that the officer gave me outside, at the bottom was a place for owner's signature. Me being meticulous, I signed and dated it. Took my bunch of papers and the lady at the counter gave me a ticket. F-169. I love a number which has 69!

Currently F-165 was being served. Soon, I heard the magical words. "Now serving F-169 at window 13".
I looked at the tv screen and it said window 18, at the end of the row. I thought may be its a mistake. I went to window 18 and the the lady there was surprised to see me.

"Did I ask your number?" She wasn't expecting anyone as she hurriedly put down her coffee mug.
"Yes. Its F-169 and Window 18 as the screen shows".
"Are you sure? Because I didn't call ..."

Before she could finish, the announcer went off, "Now serving F-169 at window 13". Hmm, what is going on? I looked up at the tv screen, the end of the row now said window 8. I do not believe this. Is this some joke the dmv is playing with me. Is there a hidden camera somewhere? I looked down, closed my eyes, took a deep breath and .....naah, nothing.
I just looked up at the tv screen again and this time, I looked close and found out the problem.

Ticket     Window    Ticket     Window
F-169      13            B-132     8
F-169      13            A-65       18

Fuck! Embarrassing. Some dude decided to use two columns. I tried to find a hole big enough for me to hide into. I apologized to window 18 lady and headed straight to window 13, before anyone else could notice what a moron I am. I'm sure the non-appointment queue people were happy. I cannot say 'Fuck' enough times to vent my frustration. As it turned out, the day wasn't done.

So here I am, being serviced at Window 13. Sat behind the desk was a pretty women, I'd say in her mid 30s, probably Latin american, with a cute accent. And she was pretty. She had a very soft voice and sweet smile. Great! Better than some old ladies and older men sitting behind some other windows. We were having small talks, like "I need to see your passport", "Ok. Please sign here and here" etc. And I was pretty involved in trying to make more than small talks with her. I had my reasons. I had seen in the website that the written test can sometimes be waived off only if the dmv officer deems fit. I had in my mind, a plan. A plan to talk my way through it. Enter the smooth and charming me. May be with my charm, and deadly smile, and smooth talks, I'll talk my way around the written test. And it certainly helped my plan to see a beautiful women on the other side. Had it been a dude or granny, I'd have to think hard about it :)
The flirting I tried, didn't help, probably because I wasn't good at flirting. I was occasionally drawing blank coming up with some killer one liners but Ramiaza, as she goes by the name, was in fact giving me opportunities. Fuck again! Smartness but not flirting enough, I'm such a waste. I ain't Joey with 'How you doin?'

R: "Ok. So lets do the registration part first. All the paper work looks good...oh wait. Oh you were not supposed to sign at the bottom of this verification form without me telling you so"

With her fingertips she showed me the section and my signature, and I was thunderstruck. Being too careful cannot be a bad thing, right.

Me: "Oh I'm sorry. I didn't know that. I saw an empty field, and I filled it."
R:  "Oh, so you'll sign wherever you'll see the signature field?" She said with a smile that pierced my heart and thousand more. With her soft voice and a hint of flirt in it, I knew I've salvaged something of mine, even though I'm an idiot for her.
Me: "I'm truly sorry. I didn't know."

She smiled to acknowledge and the dim light of hope lingered on in my mind. Time to kill...
Me: "I was wondering if you could waive the written test for me, please."
R: "Well, I've already waived the driving test for you but I cannot waive off written."

Oh, with the faintest of smile and softest of voice, she declined but it didn't feel like it. In other words, she just said "Look, dude, if I can call you that, but here's the thing. I gave you couple of opportunities to remain permanent in my memory, instead you turned out to be a moron, idiot, confused and boring. Not funny or creative but just like some other guy, may be worse. Please give the written test and don't press your luck too much else I'll put you for driving test too".

I collected my new plates from her and my DL slip. She pointed me another section of the office with two lines, Line C and D, and asked me to be in C for my new DL work.
I get my picture taken, and the granny there handed me the test paper and pointed me to the test area.
The less I speak about the test, the better it is. There were basically three categories of questions in there, for me. Easy, 50-50 and utterly confusing. I ticked off the easy questions first. Speed limit in residential area, I know is 25, because a good 3 mile stretch from my home to office goes through it and my eyes were bored of seeing the signs "Speed Limit 25". Body Alcohol Limit is 0.08 because I've undergone a DUI test once, I was driving too slow at 3 in the morning. The 50-50 questions were something the answer to which were not obvious straightaway. But after carefully going through the options, I could make a reasonable decision. Then there were utterly confusing questions. What to do if a person with cane is starting to cross the road but then he pulls back? I mean, is it a test of how nice of a person you are? And the answer options left me totally clueless. Should I continue driving because he is not ready, should I wait for him to cross? I decided to use my best behavior. I thought what would a nice person like me, a person so caring, gentle and selfless and so intelligent, will do? Of course I'll wait for him to cross first. Just because I've a used car, doesn't mean I'll forget my roots. I used to be a pedestrian too :)
And this was just one example. 36 questions, and 3 categories, with more or less, the same distribution. You do the math. I didn't expect the test to go like this. I thought this would be a piece of cake but it wasn't. While standing in another line, to get my answers checked, I was cursing myself for being lazy and over confident. This was just casual, wasn't it. I am an atheist, but at times like these, I just pray for some supernatural force to get me to the other side.
The same granny checks my answers. Boom, boom, boom, tick, tick, boom, boom....and so on went the sequence. After 3 mistakes on the first page of the test itself, I had given up hope, while she turned over the page and sprinkled salt on my open wound. Total of 7 mistakes and I had already known the verdict long before. I have read online that you fail the test if you get more than 3 wrong so there was no point, isn't it?
And by the way, I am supposed to cross the road because the fucking pedestrian with the fucking cane is not ready to cross. What the fuck! This is the reward for being a nice guy on the road? Failure, a looser. She torn off the right top corner of the test paper and gave it to me along with my other documents. She told me I can retake the test and I need to be in Line D now, however its already 4:30pm and written tests are not allowed now.
Fuck me! As a consolation of my day's effort, I need not take an appointment or stand in the start line again. I can straightaway come and stand in Line D instead. Yeah, thank you for that. Geez...
I left the dmv, head down, and a big 'L' written on my forehead. Miserable. Tomorrow is Friday, and I'll try to come again and get this thing right.

Its Friday, the 22st, 2:15pm. I leave the office again, this time without dropping any emails. I'm already carrying a looser tag around my neck. I used to feel sarcastic for friends who fail dmv written and now I'm one of them too. What goes around, comes around, with some extra baggage of humiliation :)
At the dmv, I went straight to Line D and the Asian lady does my paperwork. While standing in the line for my written test, I was feeling confident I'll crack it this time. I had gone over the test questions of yesterday and have memorized the ones that I got wrong. As soon as I get the paper, I'll tick the boxes and get done with it, since I already know the questions. My turn came.
"Ok. so this is your second attempt, take this and go to the test area", said the granny while handing me the test paper.It was a different set of questions. What the hell is wrong with me? How can I be so stupid to think that the dmv is so stupid that they will use the same questions for every attempt? I felt like I never left the dmv yesterday. I'm back to where it all started. And my self-pride and (over) confidence had prohibited me to study the manual pdf.
I took my time. Almost 45 minutes. I targeted the easy ones first, for the ones which I was confident I couldn't go wrong. Then the 50-50s with making some reasonable logic. The came the confused questions part. After much head scratching, knuckle cracking moments, I finished all questions. Then while standing in line, I thought I'll use my smartphone to look up one question that was really confusing. Confining myself between the person ahead and behind me, and keeping my hands closer to my chest, I did a google search, and as it turned out, I was incorrect. Oh my God! And I am an atheist. Fuck! Whatever little of confidence was left, deserted me. I came out of the line, and back to the testing area. I corrected my answer, but know I wanted to know more. Since I've already spent nearly an hour on this, I didn't have time to look over all the questions. So I marked the ones that were utterly confusing, and started looking them up in my phone browser. Smartphones are amazing, aren't they. And they definitely suggest the person using it is smart too. Boom, another revelation, another incorrect answer. Change it quickly. Scratch off the old tick and replace with a new tick mark in a new box. I moved my cube few times, kept an eye out, to not attract attention. Another query, another search, another incorrect answer. Fuck!
After the painful exercise, I finally corrected my confused answers. Stood in line then handed over my paper to the granny. My chest automatically swelling....but wait....what!!!!
Boom...boom...boom..tick..tick...Boom.. went the sequence again. What the fuck! And this time, not the confusing questions, but my confident questions were wrong answers. Fuck me! I cannot be this bad. This is horrendous. Just bury me here. Kill me now, kill me!
First page, 4 incorrect answers. While she turned over the page, I readied my backpack, checked that I've got my wallet, car keys and house keys. I knew I've failed again so lets just grab my papers and get going. I'll come again on Monday, or may be never. May be I'll never drive again. Just take cab or stay home.
Second page, 2 incorrect. Granny draws a circle over -6 and then below it, a circle over -P. Hmm, what happened here? She handed my papers back and told me to stand in line D. I asked her if I passed but she kept yelling LineD, LineD. Alright, alright. I'll move grandma. Keep calm.
There was a dude in front of me and I wanted to know whats going on. I asked him how much did he miss. He had missed 3. There was a circle over -3 and -P in his paper. I knew there, that I've passed. Oh you beauty. What a smart guy am I? Brilliant. Genius. Cracked the dmv test on 2 attempts and by the skin of my teeth, had failed in one and passed in another. As I found out later, the pass limit was 6 incorrect answers.
Phew....job well done, isn't it...

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

US Route66- Day 6, Sept 22, 2013 Sunday. Petrified forest national park, Meteor crater.

Another day on the road. Same usual story to the start of the day. Checked out of the hotel around 9am after grabbing some breakfast and headed straight to Petrified Forest national park. Pranay, my friend in Chicago suggested me to include one state or national park and drive through it because it would be really cool. I agree and I had already done so.
I went into the visitor center, got myself a map and brochure of other details and headed straight to the scenic drive through the park. Paid $10 for the entrance and headed in. It was all very nice. There were some scenic points where I stopped occasionally and took pictures. I could see the flat out desert, and the petrified rocks on the hills. The rocks have been petrified for the past million years and its an art in a way. It was aesthetically pleasing to the eye. There were scattered clouds in the sky. The sun was playing hide and seek and the clouds were proudly leaving their shadows on the rocks. The rocks were bright red or orange. Very beautiful. It was a particularly windy today. It was slightly difficult to stand still and once in a while there will be heavy gusts which would just swing you sideways if you are not holding firm on your ground.


Things were looking perfectly setup for a pleasing day but it wasn't meant to be. I've hardly covered a third of the whole scenic drive when I heard a heavy rough sliding noise from the back of the car. I thought it must be because of the road being rough. After having driven 5 days on the highways I've noticed that such noise do occur because not the whole stretch of the highway is brand new and smooth. There are rough gravel rough roads, stretches with cracks and holes, big or small but it must be because the road is rough. So I kept on driving. After 5 mins, I smelled something burning. It was as if a rubber is burning. I immediately stopped on the road side, put my parking lights on and came out. There was a car behind me with an old couple, who also stopped. I saw the damage. The passenger side rear wheel, it was gone. The rubber had worn off completely with may be a thin strip left sticking with the drum. The old man came out of his car and stood beside me.
"Yeah, we saw smoke coming out of the rear for quite some time but we just couldn't catch up with you", said he with very slow pace, all the time his body was little bit shaking.
"Oh. Ok. I thought its the road so I kept driving. This is shit."
"Yeah..ha ha.. it is. Do you have a spare tire?"
"Yeah, I do. I've got my luggage in the trunk which I've to take out first then get on with the spare donut."
"We would have loved to help you out but unfortunately we have an appointment at an art center further east."
"No. no. Please do not worry. I can take care of this. Please go ahead. I'll call the visitor center and sort this thing out. Please carry on, and thank you for stopping."

They left while I made a call to the visitor center and explained them the situation. She got the park sheriff on his way to help me out who soon arrived at the scene. Before the sheriff arrived, I had taken out my luggage out of the trunk and chugged them, some on the back seat, some under the passenger seat. I thought I might need to take out the spare wheel so better to keep the trunk clean. The sheriff arrived and assessed the damage. He inquired about the car, owner, insurance and licence and I duly obliged. He took my DL and went back to his car. I do not understand what would he do with the licence. Its not like I was breaking traffic laws or similar. I guess my DL record states I had a burnt tire on so an so date. Utterly useless.
"Do you have a spare tire?" asked the sheriff.
"Yes I do but I'm not sure I want to go ahead with it. I'm carrying some heavy luggage in the car and I don't know the spare would be able to hold it. It might again blow up few miles further. Its a risk."
"Ok. So do you want to tow it then?"
"Yes. I'd like that."
"Do you have AAA or similar?"
"I've roadside assistance from my insurance, Geico. I think I can use that. Do you know any towing service?"
"Sure. I can call them up and whoever next is available will be on its way. Do you want me to do that?"
"Yes please. That would be great. Thankyou."

He went to his car and made some calls. He told me the nearest town is Holbrook, AZ and a towing car is on its way from there. It will be here in 45 minutes.
I thanked him for his service. I later realized that I should have called up Geico and asked them to send me a tow car but at that time, I thought, lets just do this any which way I can and later on I'll reimburse the expenses from Geico. Anyways, atleast I didn't have to explain my location to the tow company, the sheriff did it all. All I had to do was to wait. I saw people passing by me, some were very kind to stop by and ask if everything was okay with my car and if I need any help. I was happy to see such kindness. All kinds of people, whether old or young, stopped to inquire what happened and if I'm waiting for some help. This is one great thing about this country. People are kind and helpful.
After an hour, the tow truck came. He pulled my car up, tied with chains, secured the locks and off we went to Holbrook. This is a very awkward moment for me. Driving with a stranger for a while and you know you have to keep the conversation going. There is a lot of pressure on both parties I guess, more so on me because English isn't my first language, not even second. Add to that, I am not that funny like some people are. I breathe a sigh of relief if the other person is a talker. Some girls I have been with are like this. For people who talk a lot, I just need to feed them questions regularly and just sit back and let them tell their stories, advises, thoughts whatever. Just inject small questions about their work, make them go into the details, ask them about their family and household problems etc. I pretend to listen intently and with my detail oriented questions, the other person feels the same too, but in most cases, I couldn't care less.
The tow guy wasn't much of a talker, neither shy so it wasn't too bad. Plus I had topics to talk about. I started off with questions related to towing charges and how my insurance can come in, then ask him about his business and economy, then his family and weather and Holbrook weather. Then I shared my reasons for being in this place and by the time I was out of topics to talk about, we were in the service center. The mechanic took a look and told me to replace other tires as well because they were showing signs of wearing off. I knew it is a common ploy to extract money off me but I had two things to help make up my mind. First was that I'm in this huge road trip and still close to 1000 miles away from my destination. Add to that I'm carrying extra load. It may be safe to put all new tires and buy some peace of mind. It would be a shitty feeling to drive in the fear of some other tire popping out or worse, its coming true. Secondly, my new company, VMware, is paying a decent amount of money towards my relocation and I'd still be left with  a big chunk of money if I spend 350 quids on new tires. I agreed and within minutes I was on my way again.

This was an unplanned delay in my trip. Going back to Petrified forest was foolish as then I'd miss the meteor tour because it closes at 5pm. It is 2pm now. So with a little bit of grudge and a tiny bit unsatisfactory feeling, I moved on to Meteor crater.
The crater is around 7miles off the highway, to the south of it. And its a private property. I don't know how it came to be private. I believe initially all the desert land was federal property but then some private firm bought the land. I bought the ticket and went in. I had thought that the crater formed sometime recently, like past 50 years but I was surprised to know its 50,000 years old. And it was a huge crater. A whole city, like Chicago or San Francisco could fit inside the crater and it was so very deep that there were telescopes installed at the top to see some models that had been placed at the bottom of it. I liked it very much. In fact, if I can be so bold, I'd say this was the best attraction of my whole 66 trip. I was glad I decided to include this one. Inside the building was a rock put in a glass box and it said the crater was created by a similar size rock. It would have been nice to see the actual guilty rock but since its 50,000yrs old, people shouldn't even be looking for it. The rock wasn't big, definitely not the size that you'd think would create such a huge crater but the power of gravity is massive, isn't it. You get a sense of it when you see the size of rock and the crater behind it. You'd think no way this rock can make a hole like this but its true. Bigger size space ships burn out before they even cross the atmosphere because of the gravity pull and the friction. If indeed a rock which has managed to cross the atmosphere, it should be given respect.

I wonder what other damage the impact would have made. Did it cause a minor earth quake, did it disrupt a lake/sea which was at this place, did it destroy a forest and living life forms? I cannot imagine what would happen if it were to impact now. I wish it to fall in the ocean but then the kind of tsunami it would cause can only kill loads of people. Anyways, I think its better that it has not happened now or will not happen anytime soon.

I left the crater, thoroughly pleased. The only attraction left was Elmer's bottle tree ranch before my 66 trip comes to end at Santa Monica but that was too far away and it will get dark in couple of hours. I decided to stay the night in Kingman, AZ. There is a bit of excitement that I am feeling at this time, because I know tomorrow is my last day on the road, atleast for sometime. I checked into a motel, I don't remember the name. But it wasn't good. It was owned by an Indian couple, who were in their 50s. While the wife was watching Television, the husband got me the room key. I went into the room and smelled a strong alcoholic odor, whisky I'd say. It was so strong, the smell, that I got a headache. The carpet felt soggy a bit and I thought may be the previous occupant spilled all the booze in the carpet. I was not sure if I should try to change the room. I didn't want to be rude and besides the room was dirt cheap and I said to myself this is what you get for the money you pay. I didn't know the wi-fi password, nor was there any pamphlet for it. I went back to the front desk and asked for password and took the opportunity to ask if I can get a different room. I explained to the guy about the reason and invited him to check the condition himself. I came back to the room and repacked my stuff hoping that the owner will swing by soon and if possible, give me another room.
He did arrive 10minutes later and came into the room. As a typical owner, he tried to defend the room but I kept insisting that how can he not smell the strong stench of alcohol in here. Half halfheartedly he gave me the keys to another room and it was definitely better. Atleast it smelled like a normal room. Nothing shitty. I took a shower and went to bed straightaway.

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