The Texan in California

The sunny state of California evokes memories of beauty; beautiful forests with its yellow-orange trees, beautiful rivers with their crystal-clear waters, beautiful weather with its perfect sunny goodness, and beautiful people — my cousin SS, his wife VS and their lovely dog MS! California has been one of the places that I have visited the most after my arrival here in the US, and has been one of the states that has always caught my fancy, especially because it is so different from Texas, what with its weather, nature and its un-understand-bly high taxation rates! 😉

Yes, I was that excited to visit Cal, and no, I am not the devil.

So, when my other cousin NR decided that she had had enough of the boring Dallas landscape, we decided to pack our bags and trouble our ever-ready cousin SS in California. Given that we were poor graduate students with nothing better to do at the end of the semester (not really true, but well, who cares about the details — after all the devil lives there, and we are God-fearing people), we decided to spend an entire week at the mercy of SS and VS. SS and VS, unlike us, actually work; so, it was up to me (the Texan California veteran) to chauffer the wet-behind-the-years NR around through the week. And what a week it was!

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Day 1: Stanford, Mountainview

Yes, I cannot afford your exorbitant fees Mr. Stanford, but I can surely come in once in a while and gaze at your well-kept lawns, architecturally alluring buildings and your lets-all-loose-weight-sized campus (seriously, it is huge, if you do not have a cycle, you are so screwed. I cannot imagine how students here can ever get fat!). NR and I were graciously driven to the Stanford campus by NRs neighbor from India and her childhood friend (whom I had vague recollections of, but could not recognize) – SP/AP (name change and all). The three of us managed to reach Stanford without getting too lost and also managed to see all the popular sites, using the map provided by the visitors center. A trip up the Hoover tower and we were afforded with a view of the whole of Mountainview! We managed to get some really cool pix too — the campus is lovely! The church is possibly one of the best I have seen — and I am including all of those beauties from Italy in my list! I also used one of the toilets — this was very weird, a building dedicated to a men’s restroom, which was so surreal that for a moment I was not sure if it was a dream or not. Unfortunately, though, no photograph of that! Also managed to catch the Hewlett and Packard buildings in their engineering quad.

NR & I at the Hoover Tower

Since SP had to rush back home in Freemont to open the door for a delivery guy, we shamelessly accompanied her there and then indulged in the goodness of amazing Thai food. SP treated us to some super ice-creams at Cold Stone before driving us back home. We also managed to get a fleeting glimpse of SP’s better/bitter (?) half – P – who we were to meet later in the week as well. A nice day was rounded off by a comfortable evening at SS’s house, with MS (the doggie) enjoying the extra attention and company.

Day 2: San Francisco:

VS loaned us her car and I was the designated driver, who without getting lost once drove NR straight to Lombard street in SFO. I do not know why, but there is something magnetic about this city. The feeling it evokes in me is very similar to the one I get when I am in Mumbai. I hate the city for the crowd, the traffic, the signals and the rude people; but I somehow am drawn to its mystique, its life, its verve. It is as if these cities make up for their crowded, awful people (maybe a bit much) by exuding tremendous charm. The small roads, the weird little streets and the awkward drives kindled in me the sense of “living” that Mumbai generally kindles. We walked up and down the crooked Lombard street, managing to get some really cool pictures, and due to a weird combination of my needing to pee desperately and Starbucks locations in SFO, we found ourselves parked right outside Fisherman’s Wharf.

Narcissistic Me on Lombard Street

A nice walk down the Wharf, with a good amount of time devoted to Pier 39 and its (stinky, ugly and weird) sea lions, along with a quick visit to the Wax museum rounded off the Wharf visit. The best part of the SFO visit was yet to come, however. The last time I was here, I missed the Ghiradelli factory and shops, but this time I made it a point to find where it was and visit it. Being chocoholics that we are, NR and I were at home and savored every bite of the heavenly goodness of their Brownie Fudge Sundae! Oh, mama. Reluctantly, we left the factory (after  buying some brownies for later) and made our way to the sight that is possibly iconic — the golden gate bridge (GGB). The pissy weather (which was ok whenever we were out) did not help us much, but we did manage to drive throught GGB and go to the vista point and take pix before we were too cold to stand outside. The ride back home was punctuated with the wonderfully huge strawberries that we bought at Fisherman’s wharf and the ridiculously long route that the silly GPS took us through — fun though!

Day 3: Big Sur, 17-mile Drive, CA-1

The last time I went “touristy” in CA, the best part of my visit was the drive through CA-1 and the 17-mile drive and I was looking forward to the drive this time as well, especially because I was doing the driving! CA-17 and then CA-1 took us to the 17-mile drive, and I thoroughly enjoyed CA-17’s windy roads and green 2-lane highways, as I recollected that I had visited the exact same place sometime ago for Asilomar’s annual conference! The 17-mile drive is beautiful, with villas and resorts one can only dream about (except if you are super-duper rich), and gold courses that make no sense whatsoever (there are about 10 golf courses in that complex!), and we go a good glimpse of the wonderfully calm sea as she made her presence felt amongst the dark hued rocks and the greenish-yellow pines that surrounded her on our side.

Ready-to-pounce squirrel

A picnic lunch on the sea-side, a photo session with a possibly ferocious and rabid squirrel and we were back on CA-1, only to find that the path back home was choked because of some accident many miles up the freeway. So, we did the best possible thing — took a break! Some gas, some power-bars, some super-sweet Starbucks Frappuccinos and some oreos later we were on our way back to SS’s house — the traffic now smooth and nice. But the day was not done yet!

We reached home, and in a flash we were out again, this time to Santa Cruz, in order to stop by one of the beaches that SS wanted to visit. MS joined me in the back seat, and I thoroughly enjoyed his (slightly stinky) company! We reached the beach a bit late, but still managed to catch the sunset. We stopped by a quaint little Mexican place, where we filled ourselves and MS with all the beans, chips and rice man could find before heading to another small local ice-cream shop (which was super full for a cold day! and the guy there thought it was not as full as the previous, even colder, day!). We devoured our ice-creams (German chocolate with some coconut (!!?) in it) and then drove back home, arriving late. Phew! Long day.

Day 4: Japanese Hakone Gardens, Saratoga:

Having spent all our afternoons outside, we decided to stay in for lunch and then make our way to Saratoga. SP — NR’s neighbor from Day 1 — was free and we picked her up as we drove up to the quaint town of Saratoga and the wonderfully preserved (small) Japanese garden. We spent our afternoon in the garden, talking bullshit, and then had some coffee and ice-cream (not me, only NR and SP) and muffins (yes, me) before we split. After all, the next two days were going to be hectic and we had to plan and pack and shop…

Idyllic existence: Oh I love the Japs!

Days 5, 6 and 7: Gerstle Cove & Camping!

The entire visit to CA was crafted around this weekend camping spree. We wanted Yosemite, but given that we were planning stuff only a month on advance (yes, I said only; apparently people plan Yosemite years in advance!), there was no place to camp, and so SS booked us a nice camping spot in Gerslte cove, which is in the Salt Point State Park, about 120 miles north of Santa Clara. The park and the cove are situated in a picturesque location, which is bordered on one side by the vast tracts of untouched mountain-lion filled forests, and buffeted on the other by miles and miles of pristine blue-green ocean and beaches. Our plans were grand — we wanted to cook pulao and puliyogarai  out in the wild, with a small stove, and we took with us tons and tons of food — enough, as I said, to feed a small African country for years together, but nature had other plans.

Alaipayuthey Kanna...

We reached at around 4 PM on Friday, about 3 hours off our scheduled arrival, owing to the fact that immaterial of how much we plan and pack, we are never quite done! 😉 The challenge was dumping all of the stuff we had in SSs small coupe — an old Mitsubishi Eclipse. We managed to overcome this challenge, and I managed to drive past small lanes on freeways in a geared vehicle with almost infinite blind-spots. We got there just before the Ranger’s quitting time and selected a spot that we thought would be good, although as the ranger warned, it was windy. Well, it was not just windy, it was super-stupendously windy! If a thin person stood there without any footwear, he would be blown into the deep pines by the strong gusts of wind that made their way from the ocean! We did manage to quickly set up camp though! We pulled up the tent and stuffed it with sleeping bags and our cooler, so that it would not fly off with the wind (I can proudly state that the tent held itself rather well through the 3 days), and then made our way to the beach closest to our campground. Ah! Immaterial of the billowing wind, and immaterial of how chilly the darned wind made us feel, there was something magical about the coastline that made us walk and pose and sit and and think. We made our way back to camp, chilly and hungry.

Now, we had planned for something else the first night, but NR had made some potato-curry the previous day, and we decided to pull out the small propane stove and heat it up. Closer inspection of the cooler revealed that the Garlic toast that we had bought (rather foolishly) had been corrupted by the malevolent water that the ice turned into, thereby making much of the toast soggy. In an effort to save the rest of the toast, we decided to use the small, rather feeble stove to “grill” frozen garlic bread — and yes, we failed. Not failed in the sense that we could not eat the result, but failed in the sense that we had to chow it down quickly before the soggy butter-filled garlicky-ness of the toast made our taste-buds retch in disappointment. The accompanying potato curry was good though – although all of us failed to enjoy it as much as we should have owing to the cold wind that kept slapping itself across our faces.

Gerstle Cove Trek

We quickly made our way to the camp host, the sun setting rapidly behind us, and bought ourselves some firewood. Now, given our sitting-at-a-desk-staring-at-a-computer-screen lives, we were not the men God intended us to be, and hence SS and I were unable to get the pile of wood on fire, even with lighter fluid at our disposal. Our lack of planning with regard to a lantern and the cold made us go searching for help and the perfect camper (huge, brawny, munching on raw beef burgers, roasted on the fire that he had started) helped us out; and in what seemed like seconds we had a roaring fire warming all of us up. The night suddenly seemed beautiful, and as I looked up, I spotted the millions of stars that shone down upon us — a sight that I had not been witness to in a long time. The effect was mesmerizing — nature truly is beautiful. And cruel too — as she showed us when we tried to catch some sleep in the cold windy night.

The next day was much better — a true camping day. We got up to hot coffee, some nice oatmeal — we had found an ideal spot for the stove and managed to heat the water up perfectly — and some fruits. We hiked through the trail that bordered the coast, the windy not bothering us as much. Our long hike (not distance-wise, but time-wise) was punctuated with wonderful photograph, beautiful vistas and small snacks (apples, oranges, nature-valley bars, oreos). We discovered a little cove-beach and having realized that all of us were hungry hiked back to camp in less than half the time it had taken us to get there! Lunch was again wonderful. We pulled out a small grill and made burgers on it (yes, veggie patty — but not with yucky soy, veggie patty like the ones we get back in India — we did get it from the Indian store after all). Buns + patty + onion + lettuce + tomato + hand-made + slightly burnt + chips + ketchup + beer (for SS)/ Grape juice (pour moi)/ Coke (for NR) + outdoors  = best meal in our lifetime! I am not kidding. The burgers were heavenly, and nothing could possibly beat the taste of those burgers; and I say this after having just devoured 3 chocolate-macadamia nut cookies! We sat in the small spot (non-windy) that we had discovered and realized why burgers were such a fascination — the outdoors require some dish like a burger — easy to prepare, but full of essential carbs and fat, and SS discovered the joys of well-brewed German beer. A small game of cards in the tent, and a nap followed, before we were ready for another hike. This time though, we wanted to go through the foresty side, and hence we choose the pygmy-forest trail.

Pull ups are not my thing!

As with all trails, there are a multitude of ways one can access the pygmy forest, and we first checked out the north trail — this was about 2 miles to the forest, and since it was already close to 6 in the evening and we did not wish to hike in the dark, we chose the shorter trail from the east-side (1 mile). We walked through the mostly uphill hike with NR pleading fatigue every five mins and drinking water every ten! and reached the pygmy forest. We enjoyed the hike, not only because of the trees that surrounded us and the mountain-lions which were supposed to live there (we never saw one — sha!), but also because this was one region of the park where the wind had no effect! Indeed, we did not feel a sliver of wind on us through the entire hike. Ofcourse, things are not always hunky-dory. On our way back down, with the sun rapidly setting, we managed to loose our way! We walked and walked and finally made our way out of the forest, only to find ourselves at the entrance of the north trail, which we had given up on earlier. Given that our car was a mile away at the other trail, we had to walk on the highway (CA-1, with no sidewalks, obviously) back to our car. I was brave enough to suggest hitchhiking and a native American gentleman was kind enough to stop for us — my first hitchhike. He dropped us back to the car, on the way informing us that all of the land around us once belonged to his ancestors. Thanks to that gentleman, we made it back to our camp before sunset, and being the experts that we were, went ahead with our Thepla preparation for dinner — no preparation actually, just pulling stuff out of bags and putting them on paper plates. We managed to eat a nice dinner and then also managed to light up a neat fire (we were finally men!). The peaceful night enveloped us in its cocoon, and I dreamt of younger, care-free days, where the smoke of the Holi-fire in the neighboring building would make my eyes water. I was happy then, as I was now — ah the sweet mystery of life.

Hikers and philosophers are not that different...

We managed to sleep sporadically in the cold night (much colder than the previous one) with SS having some stomach trouble. The next day NR was all set to leave, although we did have another hike planned. But between the cold, the wind, the upset stomach, and the stink from no bath (yes, there were no showers or bath places there, only restrooms) we decided to call our camping to an end, and we packed up our stuff – again managing to defy laws of physics by fitting everything into the car once again and went back on our way. We reached home late in the afternoon and quickly made our way to the hot showers and shaves that awaited us before dunking spoonfuls of Bru in microwaved-milk and sipping away at the brownish heavenly concoction of coffee.

Stoke the fire, we are MEN!

We had dinner plans with NR’s neighbor and her husband, and we went to this chique place called Santana Row, for some fine Indian dining at Amabar Cafe, and for some fine Hookah at a Mediterranean place called Thea. Our ridiculously small portions of dessert at Amber aside, this was one hell of a night, from which we returned back tired and weary, before calling it a day. SS dropped us to the airport the next morning at about 11 and we were quickly back to Dallas — though not so quickly back home from the airport, thanks to the inept supershuttle driver! All in all, a wonderful visit — stressful and activity-filled no doubt, but still wonderful. SS and VS’s hospitality and MSs wonderfully dog maturity, coupled with SP and P’s genuine warmth, made us feel at home and comfortable. Although CA was not sunny as it was supposed to be, and I had to borrow jackets from SS, it was still a memorable trip — one that was captured in detail by the >800 photographs we managed to take through the week!

Till next time California, and Thanks for all the Fish.

Anush

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