Friday, August 1, 2014

Road trip!

After a month in the US, being back in China is almost surreal!! China, really, that's where I live now?? It is so easy to slip into familiar rhythms of life back in the States, so easy to drink in the blue sky and fresh air, so easy to believe that I never left, that China is but a fantastic dream. Sigh!

As always, time flies when you're having fun!! This last month is actually quite a blur - at last count, we visited almost 11 states - unbelievable, right! An incredible amount of traveling, including all possible modes of transportation - planes, cars, trains and even a ferry or two! The plane rides getting to the US and back are always the dreariest - 14 hours each way, the only saving grace being the on-demand entertainment! Manasi and I flew Delta this year, so our connection to Peoria was through Detroit - compared to Chicago's O'Hare, the Detroit airport is considerably smaller, easier to navigate - so even with the short layover, we made it to our next flight with plenty of time to spare!!

After a week in Peoria, we were off on our first mini-vacation - to Houghton, Michigan, to visit Ajey's uncle. Houghton, of course, has a special place in our personal history - Ajey and I both went to school here, and it was here that we met 17 years ago! Located right at the tip of Upper Michigan, near Lake Superior, quite literally a stone's throw away from Canada - Houghton's main claim to fame is its school, Michigan Tech. Locals joke that there are only 3 seasons in Houghton - last winter, this winter and next winter! Having lived through 2 of these winters, let me tell you that this is no joke!

Severe as the winters are, the summers in Houghton are breathtakingly beautiful! While the rest of the country swelters, temperatures here are pleasant - in fact, this time we were there, we had to put on sweaters and coats - unthinkable in July!! The air is ambrosial - it has been years since I've slept so deeply, my allergy medications and nasal sprays unused - again, a sobering reminder of just how bad the pollution in China is. Despite couple of cold, rainy days, our 5 day stay in Houghton was very, very relaxing. Lots of naps, good food, a little drive around the town, badminton in the evening - perfect, just perfect!!

Lake Superior

Back in Chicago, it was a weekend with the B family - family friends who are more family than friends!! I have known them since forever - Manoj mama's mom was my first teacher in Kindergarten, and she had an especially close bond with my mother. And when I first flew to Chicago (seems like a lifetime ago), it was Manoj mama and Anu Maushi who received me at the airport, and later, even drove me to Houghton!! A more welcoming, warm couple would be difficult to find - being with them is so comfortable!! I always think of spending a week here, but somehow, have never been able to manage more than 2 days - this time was no exception, and soon, too soon, it was time to head back to Peoria!!

Not for long, though - Ajey flew in a couple of days later, and then right after, we left for our much-awaited vacation - a road trip to New York and Washington DC!! I love driving in the US - and while having a driver is undeniably a luxury, I do miss this simple freedom in China! It had been quite long since we had been on a real vacation in the US - was it to the Niagara Falls in 2002, or was it the Kentucky trip a year later?? Anyway, we were all quite excited - especially Manasi - more so after we stocked up on snacks for the trip - I do think we went a little overboard with these! Walking into Walmart after 2 years in China is a sensory overload - almost a bit too much to handle!!

The plan was to drive all the way to New Jersey - almost a 1000 miles - with an overnight halt in Pennsylvania. The landscape all through Illinois, Indiana and most of Ohio is almost the same - cornfields, cornfields and more cornfields - the monotony broken by huge silos and farmhouses! Cornflower blue skies above, powderpuff clouds floating gently, verdant green fields all around and the road, straight as an arrow - it was like being in a trance almost!! Midway through Ohio, the cornfields started giving way to woods and rolling hills - the road now winding its way through a short stretch of W. Virginia into Pennsylvania and our first halt - the little town of Somerset.

Town? Crossroads, more like it!! Seemed to be a popular stop for bikers - there was a huge Harley store in this tiny place, and all the hotel parking lots were full of bikes! Not too many dinner options though - we finally ended up eating at our old standby - Pizza Hut! It had been quite a drive - just over 600 miles!! A shorter drive the next day, but still an early start - we made it to Princeton, NJ just in time for lunch with our friends the Vs. Again, a nostalgic meeting - it has been 11 years since we last met them!! It is actually quite a surprising friendship - KV came to Michigan Tech the same time as Ajey, but he transferred out a mere 4 months later. And yet, over the years as other people faded away, we have always stayed in touch with KV!!!

We spent that evening walking around Princeton, admiring the historic old buildings, awed by the sheer weight of knowledge that seemed to permeate the atmosphere - how awesome it would be to be a student here!! It was a lovely place, the town square lined with with quaint little restaurants and cafes, flowers blooming everywhere! Dinner, not surprisingly, was to be at an Indian restaurant - but this was a place unlike anything I had seen before. First of all, the strip mall where it was located was dominated by a huge convenience store named - are you ready? - 'Subzi Mandi' (Vegetable Market in Hindi) - with a poster of a beaming Madhuri Dixit! The other stores in the strip mall were also all Indian - a pizza place, a dry cleaners and of course, Mithaas - which was actually a combination of a sweet shop and restaurant!! What a mouth-watering array of delicacies!!

The next 2 days we experienced the joys of commuting to New York City - a 90 minute ride one-way on the New Jersey Transit Rail. And while the novelty was fun - I can't imagine doing this day in and day out - almost 3 hours a day, unimaginable! Give me good old Peoria any day, with work barely 5 minutes away!! The trains were a bit disappointing - most Asian cities these days have highly sophisticated rail networks, and comparatively, the NYC metro trains were quite old, even dingy! The Vs were a big help in planning our 2 day exploration of NYC, and it was so nice to come home to hot meals and warm beds and great conversation!! What absolutely wonderful hosts!! And no, I did not just skip over NYC - that of course, will be another post - so moving on...

From NYC to DC is another 4 hour drive - and 3 more states! From New Jersey into Delaware - barely 10 miles before we crossed into Maryland, and still, it took us a couple of hours. Why? Well, Delaware is on of the 4 states in the US that has tax-free shopping, that's right - no tax! And barely a mile after we crossed the border was this huge, huge mall - of course we had to stop! I did have something particular in mind that I wanted to get - a little addition to our collection of Apples - that's right, a brand new Macbook Air that is just so awesome!! My Toshiba I've had for about 10 years now - time for an upgrade, don't you think?!

In the DC area, we had the chance to meet up with one more of Ajey's friends - this time a school friend, AN, from the VB days - a solid 24 years have passed since these guys met! Talk about reunions!! Drove to Ashburn, Virginia from DC - another state to add to our kitty - and spent a wonderful evening with AN and his lovely family!! Like NYC, DC will be a separate post - so we're finally all the way at the end of our vacation - driving back to Peoria! Once again, one solid day of driving to Elkhart, Indiana - which turned out to be a surprisingly happening place with all kinds of restaurants! A few hours in Chicago the next day - a quick catch-up with our dear friends BH and NK - and then it was straight to Peoria!

So how many states was it? Let's see - Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, W. Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia - of course, we did go to Michigan too, bringing the total to 11!! Well on our way to get all 50 done! After all the excitement, coming home to Suzhou is a bit dull - Manasi and I are severely jet lagged - staying up till 2am, and then falling asleep at oddest hours - not having a routine to get back to is not helping!! I do have my new Mac to play with - indeed this is the first post on my new laptop! Ajey will be back next week, and soon we will all be caught up in the new year at school! Until then, I'm happy to get some time to get caught up on my posts - NYC and DC coming up soon!!