Friday, October 27, 2006

My boring week days…

I am completing my third week here… Well, things aren’t as exciting as you thought… or as I thought initially… here is a sample of my usual week day…

It isn’t easy at all to wake up at early in the morning. Especially when the climate is so cold (51 degrees… yeah… that’s 9 degree in Celsius) and sun rises only at around 8 AM. Getting ready as quickly as possible is the toughest task. It never works for me; as I keep on postponing things like shaving and ironing my dress till it’s time to go to work.

Then there is this usual breakfast at the restaurant of this hotel. The same lady with the long and pleasant ‘Gooooooooood morningggggggg’ greeting. “Yes… I want a break fast, and I am from Room No: 254”. Within few minutes she serves a glass of orange juice (I still don’t know why they put lots of ice cubes in it… that too in the morning!), and a plate of scrambled egg and fried potato pieces with two pieces of toasted bread, and a bacon. Keeping away the bacon, I finish my breakfast as soon as possible.

Office is just 10 minutes walking distance away from the hotel. But still I use the car, as the chilly wind is difficult to face even for few minutes.

These days we have the regular meetings with the team at India. That’s at 08:00 AM here which is 06:30 PM for them. After the meetings, busy work day follows.

Most of the time I go to ‘Jack in the Box’ for lunch, which is just few minutes drive away. Burgers or sandwiches… not interesting anymore…

By 04:00 PM, people will start leaving the office… I used to hang around usually till 06:30 or 07:00 PM

Back in the room… nobody to listen to what I have to say… that’s the worst part…

There is a beautiful swimming pool in the hotel… but in the cold climate… nah…

TV is the only resort… Its election time here… Iraq is the hottest issue… Almost 100 US soldiers has lost their lives in Iraq this month…. Bush says… “I know, most of the Americans are not happy with the situation in Iraq…. Neither am I”.

Then there are different debate programs going on… CNN is running a series named “Broken Government”. Some still supports the government, while many are furious about the situations.

There is a wildfire in California which is still not under control after it started few days back making acres of forest land into ashes. The unexpected snowstorm has severely affected the life in Florida.

Thank God, everything is fine here in Texas. So it’s time to sleep…

Sunday, October 22, 2006

I got a Pontiac…

One more weekend with Sreeku and his friends. This time we spent the whole Saturday to get my remaining settling activities done. Bought a plug converter so that my camera charger can be used here with American plugs and I will be all set to take more photos. :) Opened a bank account, so that my company can pay me salary every month. :) Finalized an apartment for rent to which I can shift by next month.

The next thing was renting a car as that would make me a lot more independent. The car rental agency was not willing to give me the car, as I was not having a credit card, SSN, or a Texas driving license. I showed my old Indian driving license and after some cross verifications, they agreed and I used my company’s corporate credit card. I was looking for the most economical package and there was a nice looking Pontiac Grand Prix ( which they agreed to give for a better deal, and I rented it for two weeks.

Wow! This car was really beautiful. You can start the car from outside before entering the car, using the remote. Inside was also feature rich and marvelous. The best thing I liked was the indicator that shows the real time directions like South, North, South-East, etc as the car moves which helps in avoiding lot of guess work while struggling to reach a place. I started driving from there with friends and they gave me all instructions. I was comfortable in driving now, and the only problem was finding the right directions and remembering the routes.

I also paid a short visit to the Commerce university town to watch their Diwali celebrations. The students there were having great fun with blasting Hindi songs and dances.

I was all alone on Sunday and it was a clear good day. The best time to try driving alone for the first time. Before venturing, I spent a lot of time on printed maps, Google Earth and Google Maps, to get a better understanding of the area I lived and the nearby roads. Started the trip with confidence and did few circles around the hotel before heading for a main road that I knew well. Hmm… it was cool. Why not take a deviation now? There was a small side road on my right and I went ahead. Alas… it was a ramp that joins onto a highway. Remembered my friend’s words… “Even if you go wrong, do not slow down or stop on the roads…. It’s better to get lost than to meet an accident”. So I speeded up and joined the fast flowing high way traffic praying inside to see the next exit very soon. But there was none. Bad luck again… there appears the toll sign! It was a toll road and I paid 75 cents to the person at the gate, greeting him as usual trying to hide my uneasiness. After few more miles, I saw an exit from the highway and few more tensed minutes after I got back on a familiar road.

Time to take a break! Back to the room and laptop. Noted down all major roads again. From Google Maps, took the complete directions to the place I had booked my apartment (Irving) and from there back to my room. This time, I followed the directions as it is, and was back in my room without any issues.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I have my friend here!

My boss left after three days, and there were still a lot of things to do as part of settling down here. I was lucky to have my good old college friend Sreeku in Texas. He is doing his MS in a university town called Commerce which is around one and half hours drive from Dallas. He and his friends came to my hotel room on that Friday night and of course we had a blast. Outing with him and his Mallu friends gave me the much needed comfort and we even enjoyed a Malayalam movie (Classmates) from a Dallas theatre and had masala dosas from an Indian restaurant.

Sreeku wanted to go back on Saturday and he will be busy till next weekend. So the first thing I did was shifting from my current hotel to a hotel room nearby the client’s office, so that I can go to work by walking, till I get a car. So my second week in Dallas passed without many events and without any issues too. I go to work by walk at 8 AM and come back by 06:30 or 7 PM. Food was not a major problem, as I was not yet tired of these burgers and sandwiches.

But there were a lot of other things to learn. Since here the measurement system is not the familiar British system, it always took me some time to grasp things. Miles and not kilometers, Pounds and not kilo grams, millions and billions and not lakhs and crores, and the list continue. And getting an idea of the unit was not at all easy as for example, gallon means 3.785 liters. I still don’t know how to figure out how cold is this place by looking at weather forecast by converting from degree Fahrenheit to degree Celsius!

Here in USA, they make everything possible to automatic and avoids the human touch. So from coffee brewing equipment to coin operated washing and drying machines, it was a series of discovery and learning for me with minor blunders in between. ;)
Then there are these specific words like Elevators instead of Lifts and Restrooms instead of Toilets. Then, the usual polite words that you need to exchange with every person you meet, be it your colleague or the shopkeeper or the person at toll gate who collects the road tolls. ‘hey… how you doing….?”, “Am good… how about you?”, “have a good day”, “you too…” I am getting used to all these now :) .

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Dallas and the Initial Struggles

On 2006 October 11, I landed in Dallas in the Texas state, after a four hour flight from New Jersey. There was a difference of 1 hour between these cities, as Dallas was in Central Time Zone. My client’s office was not in the city centre and was near the city limit’s area. My boss was with me for three days to help on the initial days in settling down here and to initiate the project activities with client.

At work, everything was fine. All were very friendly and helpful people. I was assigned a cubicle seat immediately with all facilities including direct phone. The photo ID card to enter the premises was also issued immediately. The project work started rolling from the day one with meetings and discussions.

Outside work, it wasn’t that easy to settle down. My boss had only three limited days to help me out, and after that I’ve to start living on my own. He had a rented car and with that we commuted to office from the hotel. He was also new to Dallas and his GPS system attached in the car helped a lot in finding the routes.

There were a lot of things to do. First and foremost was to get a social security number (SSN), which is essential in getting any other services from here. We both went to the Social Security office in Dallas and applied for it. Since my port of entry was at New Jersey, it will take some time to complete their verification and to issue the card.

The next thing was to get a phone connection, so that I will be reachable. But any postpaid connection requires an SSN. So I took a not so famous ‘metroPCS’ CDMA prepaid connection and it had an added attraction of unlimited incoming and outgoing local (within US and Canada) calls with 45$ per month. It was so good to have, as most of the connections here will charge for incoming calls too and it’s a common practice here that people would choose not to pick an incoming call if it is not after 9 PM, from when the incoming is free.

Having a car and knowing how to drive it here is a necessity as the public transport is not so widespread. My boss gave me the initial tips on driving. Compared to India everything was in reverse order here. Traffic flows through the right hand side and left lanes will have faster traffic. Driver sits at the left side of the car and getting used to this left thing was very important as we tend to forget it sometimes when we take turns at junctions. The speeds here are really scary and especially at highways. But there are some good things. Everyone follows traffic rules here, unlike in India and most of the cars here are automatic, making it easy to drive.

On a less crowded road, my boss dared to give me the car for a trial run. Ah… it wasn’t that bad! There were only two pedals, one for accelerator and the other for break. Left leg was free as there was no clutch pedal. There is a gear on right side, with a push button on it, to change from parking position to reverse or driving position. We put the gear to driving position with break pressed, and car starts moving when the break is released slowly. Then it is just accelerating to the required speed. My boss then wanted me to learn changing lanes, taking turns at junctions following the signals, and merging on the highway. I tried everything, and merging on the highway was the scariest part as the minimum speed there was more than 100 kilometers/hour. We cannot slow down there, and while changing lanes, the speed of other vehicles has to be judged correctly. Once I really got scared when a long heavy truck passed through my left lane with good speed, reminding me of my previous minor accident from Kochi with a truck. The car ran over the edge making me and my boss panic for a moment. But after driving for some more time, I felt comfortable.

Since I am going to be here in Dallas for some time, finding an apartment to stay was the next big thing. We visited few places and most of them were very nice. But again, they need an SSN to start renting the apartment!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

New Jersey Days

Though my work location was at Dallas, I stayed in New Jersey for two days to finish some formalities at our office there. I was put up in a nice hotel studio suite at Somerset.

The office was at Warren and I had to join someone from the office for the conveyance. Days were spent at office and hence there was no time to see any places around. Moreover there were no means too.

On the eve of my trip to Dallas, joined my previous project members and went to Jersey City, where our company's corporate apartment is located. The apartment was in a prestigious building called Newport Towers positioned directly across Hudson River. On the other side of the river, we can view the beautiful Manhattan skyline of New York City, where the World Trade Center used to be. It was already getting dark and hence wasn't a good time for my basic camera. Though I wanted to have a short trip around the city, nobody was there to accompany me.

Next day early morning, I started for Dallas and took a photo of the Manhattan, but it didn't come good as the light was still not enough.

Monday, October 09, 2006

My First US Visit

Most of the Software Engineers' first foreign trip will be to US. But I wasn't in that lucky category and it took almost 6 years in this industry, to take me to this dream land. Yes, it was my dream to visit the world's most powerful and developed nation. A country that is talked about much and also hated across many parts in the world!

The trip happened all of a sudden for a new project assignment from my company (MindTree, Bangalore). I didn't even get enough time to say good-bye to many of my friends and relatives. Neither did I get enough time for buying things for the trip. But of course, I was excited about the trip.

On a Sunday (2006 Oct 08) night, or rather Monday early morning, I started my trip from Bangalore catching the Air India flight at 03:30 AM. The travel was not at all exciting. Flight was delayed for some time before we started. There was a change of flight from Mumbai. Then a long and boring flight to Paris that took more than 8 hours. I don't have to tell about the services you can expect from an Air India flight. I didn't get the windows seat. I didn't like the food. My head-phone set was not clear. There were no any good programs in the channel. Foot rest was broken! But I was still luckier than my co passenger who had to keep a small pillow up in his hands, pushing onto the ceiling to prevent water from falling on his head! Airhostess kept on saying that, nothing to worry about it as it's just the moisture from air condition system. After all, she has seen it many a times!

Got to see one old friend in the flight and spent some time chatting with him. Also kept walking through aisles and remembered to do some stretching exercises to avoid the long travel problems. Catching some panoramic Views through the window near the doors, (as the sky was clear most of the time), was another time pass as I had not taken any books for reading.

Flight stopped at Paris for more than two hours, though we had to sit inside. After cleaning and getting more passengers on board, another long flight started. Since I was traveling westwards, I was gaining more time. Though it was night in India, it was just after noon here. That means one more lunch on the same day (This time it was bit better).

This long flight ended after 8 or more hours finally reaching Newark, the airport near New Jersey. It was 5 PM when I arrived there. I was bit tensed about the questions they might ask at the immigration booth. But everything was fine and they took both the index fingers imprints and a photograph as part of their heightened security measures.

Got the first feel of US culture. Here everyone has to be independent. So there was no one waiting for me to pick up! Went to the taxi area and headed to the hotel where I had my rooms booked. It was getting dark by that time. Sitting inside the car, chatting with the Egyptian driver who was so curious to know more about India and Amitab Batchan, enjoyed few glimpses of New Jersey city area, realizing with satisfaction that my dream has come true.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Flying from Bangalore to New Jersey

Before you begin... this post is just a description or rather instructions on airport and travel formalities and will be useful for those who are traveling to US for the first time. This explains my trip from Bangalore to New Jersey by Indian Airlines involving a change over at Mumbai and a stop at Paris.

Though the flight is at 03:30 in the night, it is better to reach Bangalore Airport by 12:30 in the night. Even if you reach early, the Air India counter will open only by that time. You need to go to the international departure terminal (Departure-3). Look for the Air India counters. Other flights at this time will be Lufhansa and Air France and there will be a lot of people queuing for these airlines.

Give the ticket and passport to the person in Air India check-in counter. Place your check-in luggage on their platform. You can carry a total of 64 Kilograms split into two bags of 32 Kilograms each. Its better you carry two not so big bags (about 25 kilograms each), otherwise it will be difficult to handle them while loading onto trolley. Make sure that your hand baggage contains only necessary things like documents, cash, mobile, and any small books if you want to read. Remember not to put paste, creams, or any gels and sharp objects like combs, nail cutters, pins, etc in the hand baggage. The final destination city is Newark which is near by New Jersey. The first flight goes from Bangalore to Mumbai and then the next one goes from Mumbai to Newark, with a stop at Paris where you will have to sit in the aircraft itself. Remember that your luggage will be checked in till Newark. The person at the check-in counter will issue you two boarding passes and will return you the ticket booklet after taking the required sheets. They will also give you an immigration form which you need to fill with the details from your Passport.

Now go upstairs to the Immigration area, with your hand baggage. Your luggage will be now taken care by Air India and you don't have to worry about it until you reach Newark. There will be different immigration counters and you will have to wait at yellow line near them, until the officer calls you to his desk. Give him your passport, boarding passes and ticket booklet and the filled immigration form. Their duty is to make sure that no criminals are escaping from our country and you are going to US for a valid reason. They will verify the passport and may ask you some questions like why you are traveling from Bangalore when you are actually from Kerala, etc. Sometimes the person at the counter may send you to another senior officer for verifying more details. In any case, keep your calm and answer honestly. Once they complete the verification, they will put a seal on your passport and gives it back along with boarding passes and ticket.

After immigration, the next step is security check. Put your hand baggage and jacket through the scanner, and pass through the metal detector. A security officer will examine you physically and will let you go with your belongings after stamping on the boarding pass.

After security check, you enter a hall waiting to board the aircraft. You might see a lot of people waiting for other airlines like Lufthansa and Air France and might not get a seat in the beginning. Find a comfortable place in the hall and wait there for some hours until the announcement comes for Air India. Sometimes the flight will be delayed and will have to wait for a longer time. Do not sleep, as you may miss some important announcements. You need to show your Mumbai boarding pass to board the aircraft. It will take more than an hour to reach Mumbai.

Once you get out of the aircraft, follow other passengers to board the bus that will take you to the international terminal. As you enter the hall, you will see a sign board for transit passengers. If not, ask anyone the way for Air India transit passengers to New Jersey. Its a bit long walk through the aisles and at every turn, you will see the sign board 'Air India Transit Passengers'. Make sure that you always move along with other passengers. Then you will reach a big hall with a counter where the person will check your both boarding passes and will give you back the Newark boarding pass after telling you the gate number to board the aircraft. Go to the said gate number. Here you will have to go through one more security check where you need to pass your belongings through the scanner and undergo a physical checking. After that, wait at the hall near the mentioned gate, listening for the boarding announcement. Once announced, board the aircraft showing your boarding pass.

Now this is going to be a long journey. Try to get good sleep during this time. It will take more than 8 hours to reach Paris. Drink a lot of water and get out of your seat to take breaks in between. Walk through the aisles and catch some outside views through the windows near the doors. Even while you are seated, do some simple exercises and stretching to ensure proper blood circulation. You will get breakfast and lunch during this flight. When the flight is about to reach Paris the cabin crew will distribute immigration forms for those who are getting down at Paris. You don’t have to collect that. At Paris, some of the passengers will get down and you have to remain seated. Then some people will enter the aircraft to clean it and a security officer will come asking for your passport and boarding pass. After verification he will give them back. After an hour or two, some more passengers will board from Paris and the flight will start its journey to Newark.

This is another long journey. Notice that, though the Indian time is now night, it will be day time at Paris. So you will get one more lunch. After more than seven hours you will reach Newark. Airhostesses will distribute two forms before landing. One is customs form and the other is immigration form. You need to carefully fill both of them using ball pen in capital letters. If you make any mistake in filling, ask the airhostess for one more form and redo it again properly.

Newark airport is simple and spacious airport. After getting out of the aircraft, you will reach an open immigration area where there will be an officer saying 'US Passport holders, this way and visitors this way'. Join the line of visitors. The queue will lead to an immigration counter, where you will have to wait at the yellow line until the officer calls you. When called give him your passport, ticket and boarding pass along with the filled forms. He might ask you few questions, about your purpose of visit and intentions. Be calm and confident and there is nothing to worry about. If he asks more documents, be ready to handover them to him. Once he completes questions and verifies passport and visa, he will ask you to put your left index finger on the scanner to take an imprint. Then do it for right index finger. Then look at the small camera to take your photo. Once he handover the passport and other things, say 'Thank you' and leave the counter.

Just near by there is the luggage claim area. Look for the board showing Air India and your flight number to see on which luggage belt number the luggage will come. In the luggage area, there will be a trolley station. You need to pay 3 dollars to get a trolley. If no persons are there to collect cash, you will have to put it in the machine to get the trolley, or use an international credit card. Get the help of anyone around for that. With the trolley, go to the corresponding numbered belt and watch for your luggage to come. It might take some time to get the luggage.

With the luggage, move towards the end of the hall to reach customs area. While walking you will notice a money exchange counter there. If you don’t have any coins, give some Indian Rupees there and get equivalent dollars. Get quarter coins (25 cent coin is called as quarters) from there for at least two or three dollars, as this will be required to make a phone call.

In the customs area, there will be an officer to collect the customs form you have filled. Since you are not carrying any special items, you can just walk through the area with your luggage after giving the form.

Go straight towards the EXIT area and you will reach the arrival gate. Taxis can also be found near by that area. There will be a number of coin phone booths inside the hall. To make a call to any US number, lift the phone, dial the number and put 4 quarter coins into it.