Astro Photography Adventure

Monday, August 22, 2011 8 comments

Been a while since I blogged on this space..but had to capture some memorable moments from my recent photography trip to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park for capturing Milky Way and star trails.

For followers of my FB photography page (, I have done a few dark sky photo shoots in Pinnacles National Monument and Death Valley last year and realized one thing; skillful photography is not all about using light. There is a 'Dark' side to photography as well..of course only our lens can capture those moments.

Tuolumne River after Sunset
I followed weather forecast along with Moonrise and Sunset times in Tuolumne Meadows (TM) about 3 weeks in advance of my trip and decided to head out with my buddies Anand Mannargudi, Sankar Salvady, and Vinodh Krishnamoorthy for a night photoshoot to capture Milky way and Star trails over Tenaya Lake and Half Dome. I was extremely lucky to find last minute accommodation in Tuolumne Lodge to stay overnight; that way we were not forced to drive back to bay area after the photoshoot at 3.30 am.

My trip to eastern sierras and Tuolumne with my family early August meant I didn't have to spend too much time researching on locations to get the best view of Milky Way with some interesting foreground. I could visualize the location in dark setting based on my earlier visit. I wanted to do Milky way over Olmstead point and star trails over Tenaya Lake. At least this time, I knew how to spot milky way in the sky. During my first trip to Pinnacles I had to post a question on locating milky way in various photography forums to evoke no response..only after getting to the dark sky location, I realized Milky Way is visible to our naked eye (no wonder I received no response to my forum question)!

My day started at 7 am with a TCA tennis ball cricket league game. Had to rush back home right after the game and grabbed a quick lunch. By the time we headed out of the bay area it was 2 PM. Luckily we did not hit any traffic on our way to TM and checked in the lodge around 7 PM. We captured a few shots at the meadows in fading light and by astronomical twilight, we headed to Olmstead point and night hiked to a rocky overlook for an unhindered view of Milky way rise over Half Dome and Clouds Rest. Once we reached the overlook, even though I was seeing milky way for 3rd time in the last 12 months, I was as excited as my buddies Sankar and Vinodh, who had their first date with Milky Way! They were just dumbstruck by the sight of the galaxy and I had to remind them to set their cameras on their tripods as they were there to take some pictures as well :)

Rising Milky Way over Half Dome and Clouds Rest from Olmstead Point
Sankar had a tough day at work with his camera turning to a brick (courtesy - his new intervalometer). We captured some nice pictures of Milky Way and moments after I set my rental camera (D700/14-24 2.8) on tripod to take a group silhouette in self timed mode, came the shock of the night! We heard the rental camera with wide angle lens fall on the rock with a big thud. For a moment I thought the $1500 lens had shattered. Blessing in disguise - there was only damage to the lens hood and I had taken insurance coverage for the lens. By the time we decided to turn back, we had lost our way in complete darkness and could not find the trail leading back to the parking lot. After a few lost and panicky moments, we found our way out to the parking lot and headed straight to Tenaya Lake around 11 PM. I loaned my spare D90/Tokina set up to Sankar so he could compose some pictures of Milky Way and Star trails as his Canon 7D set up had become completely dysfunctional :(

Rising Moon and Jupiter over Tioga Pass
One reason I love star trail photography is once the camera and timer is set, you can relax and gaze at the stars while the camera does most of the work! We pulled our camp chairs by lake side and settled down with soggy SUBWAY sandwiches picked from Oakdale earlier that evening. Meanwhile, Vinodh had issues with his wet socks from his holy dip in Tuolumne river during sunset and as temperature began to drop to high 30's, he snugged up with comforters and blankets like a shy little snail. We could do only 75 mins of star trails as there was bright moon rising from the east in the middle of our star trails shoot.

60 min star trail over Tenaya Lake
Moonlight meant foreground was naturally light and didn't have to use LED flashlights to do some artificial foreground lighting! Just before we decide to leave the place to get back to our tents, Anand came up with a crazy idea to do some light paints in the middle of Tioga Pass road. Hope no one was watching us run with a LED flash light in the middle of Tioga Pass at 3 am! I especially felt a little weird running around the cricket field that morning and again running at 9500 feet with flash light, painting some weird circular light patterns.

Light painting on Tioga Pass at 3.30am!
Eventually crashed at 3.30 am and slept for a few hours inside the tent in very cold conditions before the non-nocturnal (a.k.a normal people) started making noise around the tent at 6.30 am. Had a good breakfast in Tuolumne Lodge Restaurant and did a quick stop by Tioga Lake and hit the road around noon. Traffic favored us on our way back too..we saved about 30 mins taking the old priest grade road for the first time instead curvy 120 past the Groveland area. By the time we reached Manteca for Lunch it was 3.30 pm!

Inside Tuolumne Tent Cabin
(L to R - Anand, Raja, Vinodh, Sankar)
Had a sumptuous burrito in Chipotle and reached home around 4.30 PM. All in all it was a fulfilling photoshoot with my photo buddies and I am sure more than the pictures, the trip adventures will stay in our memories for a long long time!

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Colorful India

Saturday, January 16, 2010 5 comments

Yeah! I was able to knock off one place in my checklist of places I would like to visit in my lifetime. I visited the Taj Mahal during my recent trip to India. There could not have been a more opportune moment and location for my brother-in-law's wedding. I visited Delhi to attend the wedding and also made a point to travel nearby places like Agra, Jaipur, and Mathura (the golden triangle). I have always wanted to visit northern part of India during my India trips, but for some reason or the other, could never do it until this holiday season. It takes a lot of planning to visit 3 of the 4 corners in India in 4 weeks time period. This posting is about my travel experience in north India.

Taking an afternoon flight was not a good choice, especially for the long haul from SF to Hong Kong. Both Suha and kids had jet lag for a couple of days after we landed in India. Before we could even unpack our 8 monster bags, we had to carry 4 of them to Delhi for the wedding. I haven't been able to reduce my luggage since my blog post about travelling heavy. Once we got through the security area in Chennai airport, we grabbed some sandwich and coffee from the snack shop inside the airport. I also picked up some children's activity book for Shreya to keep her occupied in flight. Chennai to Delhi flight was a relatively short one lasting just about 3 hours. Once we landed in Delhi, we headed straight to the brides place, had some quick bites followed by dinner and headed straight to Karol Bagh for the stay that night. Our tour operator, Panicker's travel is very prompt on timings, so we had to be ready for the 6 am departure of golden triangle tour. After dragging our bags to the bus, we got inside the bus with a hot cup of chai, sold by Chaiwala right outside the bus and then settled down for the 3 hour road trip to Jaipur. Then came the first adventure of the trip. We were about to sleep after an hour into the journey, but a highway truck driver had a different plan for us. A truck from the slow lane cut right into our fast lane resulting in a big thud and a crashed windshield on our tour bus. The truck lost stability after hitting our bus and was riding on just 2 wheels right on the center median with sparks flying all over. Half asleep, I wondered if people were celebrating Diwali in the middle of the highway. Luckily the truck did not topple in front of our bus. It got back on the road and as it happens in India all the time, the driver did not even bother to stop and check what had happened. Our bus passed the truck and forced him to stop in a gas station. Truck driver got down from his truck and try to flee out of sight. Some of the passengers in our bus chased him down and had their share of boxing practice.

Amber Fort, Jaipur

No insurance, no cops were involved. The truck driver was let go after he plead his way out of the situation. None of us slept during the rest of the journey.We stopped for breakfast at a resort where they served hot idli's, vada and coffee. We never expected south indian style breakfast up north. Amber fort was our first stop in Jaipur. Shreya enjoyed watching the snake charmers at work, while I enjoyed taking a short hike through the secret tunnel ways used by the Maharaja of Jaipur.

We made a quick photo stop by Jal Mahal and proceeded straight to the lunch spot at pink city restaurant. Food was typical spicy rajasthani food with lots of good selection. We had a sumptuous meal and watched a short but very enjoyable puppet show. We proceeded to the arts emporium to watch a demo of vegetable color painting.

Snake Charmers

Visited Jantar Mantar, performed some calculations ;) and went to the hotel for the stay that night in Jaipur.

Advait at Jantar Mantar
Had an early start the next morning at 4 am and headed straight to Fathepur Sikri.
This place is famous for its architecture during the mughal empire. Local guides take control of the tour as soon as you enter their territory. Guide added more spice to his version of history by emphasizing more on Akbar's secret relationships and wives than explaining about the actual monuments. It was like a bollywood
movie than a discovery channel documentary!
Kids at Fathepur Sikri
Our next stop was at Agra fort. We witnessed the places where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangazeb. Agra fort was massive and beautiful. As we walked through the fort we could feel the history behind it. We could see Taj from the fort but clear view was hindered by smog in the area. We finished our lunch and headed straight to Taj. We had an interesting experience at the entry. One of the passengers in our bus had fallen in the trap set by a local guide. The guide had promised to bypass the security line and take us on a fast track. We were highly skeptical of that as he had taken just Rs.100 for our entire group. We were taken through a narrow stairway and through alleys that reminded me of the movie 'Slumdog millionaire'. We navigated through the maze and ended up in the south entrance of Taj. Guess what? there was a security line in that entrance as well! Heavy security in the area prevented Suha from carrying some food items in her handbag. The beauty of Taj is, you can admire its beauty from a distance and also while you are close to it. It is too sad the precious gems on the Taj is missing now.

Taj in Close Up
Still the paintings on the marble are wonderful. We took a break the following day and finished our Delhi sightseeing after that. Of the places I visited in Delhi, I was most impressed with Qutub Minar. This place is rich in history and is a must see place for people with a penchant for history. The structure is amazing and the whole place is built on layers of historical structures and is an interesting blend of Hindu, Jain and Mughal architecture. Baha'i temple or the Lotus temple is also worth visiting. Of the other places we visited Rajghat (Mahatma Gandhi's tomb), India Gate and the Rashtrapathi bhavan (presidential palace) were nice.

Lotus Temple Iron Pillar at Sunset

After all this travelling, we did attend the main event, the wedding. The prime reason we visited north India!
Wedding Ceremony Kids at the Wedding

Overall a pleasant trip to India. During my previous trips, I have always wondered why India could not become like one of the developed nations, with broad roads, huge malls, big cars, grid layouts, etc. However, nowadays, I feel India should be the way it is to preserve its colorful character. With a blend of rich civilizations, rich and poor people living in the same neighborhood, modern and ancient set up abutting each other, there is immense diversity in India, the way it is today. And I am sure it will never change for centuries to come, even with the arrival of nano technology, uPhone, and Windows 7000! It is a vibrant land of rich heritage and everyone in this world should set their feet at least once in their lifetime on this beautiful subcontinent.

India Gate Qutub Minar

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On a slippery slope

Sunday, April 19, 2009 10 comments

Donning the Ski Gear - getting ready to Ski

Having been in Michigan for almost 3 years, about 10 years ago, I should be ashamed to say that I have not skied even once in the snowy slopes of that state. There is no dearth of snow around the place where I lived. In fact, there were ski areas, within 20 miles of the place where I resided. I wanted to share with you my skiing adventures on my recent trip to Tahoe this week.  

Promptly captured occasional upright moments!
My first ever experience on a frictionless surface was on an ice skating rink in the University's skating arena. From the outside, it looked extremely easy. In fact, I was dreaming about doing some aerial spins and twists like the professional figure skaters prior to stepping inside the rink for the very first time. Then came the reality. I could hardly stand upright on the ice in spite of holding the boundary walls around the rink. I somehow managed to gain balance after a few hard falls on my cushion back (you know what I mean!). I still don't know the proper technique to skate on ice. I should probably get some tips from Shreya, who is learning proper technique from her ice skating lessons. 
Shreya getting ready for the Ski lessons
I have always been very jittery about getting on the skis due a number of scary episodes of my friends getting injured while trying to venture on the ski's. Couple of my friends had torn their ligaments while skiing. But I wanted to put Shreya on skiing course before she got the fear of falling. Moreover, she has been wanting to get out on the snow through out the winter. With spring here already, the past week was my last opportunity to get to the snow top Tahoe mountains. Shreya's schools are off for a week for spring break. I did some research about the ski resorts in the north lake Tahoe area, and decided to go skiing along with Shreya for a day. Since Advait is not allowed to ski until the age of 4, Suha decided to stay back with him and watch from the sidelines.  I got to the skiing area along with Shreya at 8 am to pick up the tickets, which included a 2 hour lesson along with equipment rental. It felt a little weird to be on those hard boots for the first time. I rented a helmet for an additional $10 charge to protect whatever little thing that is left inside my skull! 
Ski Instruction Area 
I was not ashamed to confess to each and every one of the resort staff that I am an ultra ultra beginner! One of the resort staff at the equipment rental area suggested I get on the bunny slopes and try something on my own. But the instructor had a different view altogether. She suggested I wait until the beginning of the lesson, and said most people pick too many bad habits trying to learn on their own and it gets hard to get rid of those. Shreya was on her own with  a different group for kids. My instructor was as cool as the snow. He went over the basic instructions and the various jargons used on the skis and took us to the bunny slope straight away. If being on the boots was a hard thing. Treading with skis underneath those boots, was much harder! I tried to follow those instructions, and glided for a few meters before my first fall bringing down the entire plastic fence cordoning off the instruction area! (as seen in the picture). Falling on snow was much better than the rock hard ice inside the skating rink. I asked the instructor to give me tips on how to get up after a fall. Trust me, it is not easy to get back up with those heavy skis on. 
On the Ski Lift 
I learnt how to stop making a wedge, turn in both directions,  and finally getting off the ski lift. Ski lifts ( as seen in the picture) take you to the top of the slope and drops you off to glide downhill from there. I had a very funny experience getting of the ski lift once. I was supposed to get off the lift and glide straight to the dipping area for a stop before proceeding downhill. I saw an orange cone with a small stop sign in the corner. Instead of avoiding that, I went straight towards it and banged on the orange cone bringing down the stop sign along with the cones to a total disarray. I got up with some help from the lift operator and couldn't stop laughing. My instructor said, "Raj, nothing to worry at all, as long as you are laughing!" With a few falls here and there, I was able to navigate on the smaller slopes with much better comfort. I could occasionally spot Shreya from the top of the lift and only envy her glide smoothly on the snow without falling too many times! 
I am glad I am back home in one single piece. 
Now I am looking forward to the next snow season to glide on the slopes again.

You can also read Shreya's version of our trip at

(PS - Only select readers are allowed, please send me an email if you would like access to her blog)

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Rapid Shooter

Sunday, March 29, 2009 20 comments

First of all, I don't want the readers to think this post is about some murder mystery or sniper shootings. After few weeks of inactivity, I am back to my blogging ways. If you are wondering why there were no posts from me for the past few weeks, I was too busy with one of my favorite pass time activities. Photography equipment research! Why spend weeks together for ordering a single camera? Shouldn't it take just a few minutes to click on the order button and wait for the camera shipment? Well, in my case, I was ready to spend more than a grand on a new SLR camera which has a lot of sleek features. I spent a lot of time reading online reviews about the new camera. I don't think there is a single review out there that has slipped my scrutiny. In this post, I will walk you through a flashback of events that has turned me into an 'obsessive photographer' that I am today!

I have always wondered why there are no good photographs of me taken during my childhood days. Well, I can only blame one person for that. My dad! Whenever I ask my mom the reason for not preserving a good childhood photograph of me. She blames my dad for not picking up the photo from the photo studio where she had taken a portrait of me. The reason for not picking up? My mom had not taken my dad along for taking my baby portrait! Ego wars had come in way of my baby portrait :( However, my dad has a different story. He says, I had not posed properly for the photo, with wrong footed squat etc. Left to myself, I would have picked up the photo no matter what, even if I had posed upside down! Now I have to rely on looking at my photos in old albums from weddings and other family occasions. I was left at the mercy of the wedding photographers to snap me once in a while. I used to get delighted whenever there was a flash in the vicinity. It made me think I was being photographed. But to my disappointment, the sad truth was, flash covered the whole region and did not mean I was necessarily in the frame!

I still remember the Yashika point and shoot film camera in my house, which we used extensively for our various trips and vacations. I used to get thrilled by just looking through the viewfinder of that camera. That particular camera was used by a lot of my relatives and friends and there were good reviews about it at that time from the users. After coming to the US, I got my very own film camera. A Samsung Maxima with 35-105 zoom lens. Back during those days, when there was something called a film made out of celluloid, I took tons of pictures with my friends at niagara falls, pittsburg, NYC etc. In fact, my index fingers were tired and swollen as a result of clicking the shutter button after every sightseeing trip. My friends were tired standing and posing for pictures at every landmark. And of course doubly tired, having to take a picture of me at the same spot! Some of my friends became pale and white, due to excessive flash exposure! Some of my friends used to run away from the photo spot when I pulled the camera out for pictures. I used film rolls on my camera like the never ending roll of bullets on a machine gun. My friends were running for life making me look like a shooting gangster.

I gifted my first Samsung camera to my sister during my first trip to India and purchased another Nikon film camera with panoramic capability. I took a lot of panorama shots with the Nikon film camera. The best one is the view of Manhattan skyline from the top of world trade center. I still have negatives and prints of all those pictures stored in 3-4 big boxes in my storage closet. Suha was shocked to see the truck load of photographs and negative rolls in my possession. She had to spend weeks to organize them in different boxes. Thank god there were no lobbyists from camera film industry. We do not rely on film rolls these days and got into digital photography. Of course, hard drive sales has picked up because of the new storage requirements to store my gigabyte worth of photographs. I recently purchased a 1 TB storage server for storing and backing up my picture archives. If camera film rolls were a problem, I am not sure what I am going to do with 40 Mini DV tapes from my handy cam lying in the storage. I should at least convert them to DVD's for preservation before Mini DV tapes become obsolete. When my dad asked for camera. I teased him, rather tortured him;), for not picking up my baby portrait from the photo studio. But somehow he managed to get a film camera during his first trip and a digital camera during the most recent one. Hats off to him. A skillful negotiator/persuader!

With the advent of digital photography, I take a lot of pictures and keep only the ones I really need. Now every Tom, Dick and Harry, including me, can take a good picture once in a while. My most recent camera was a digital SLR. A nikon D40x camera. I took a lot a nice pictures with it using it extensively during my trips to Costa Rica, Quebec City, and the Hawaiian islands. With my renewed focus on producing 1 or 2 good quality pictures rather than 100 ordinary ones. I have upgraded to a much nicer Nikon D90 camera. I spent a lot of time researching about this camera before settling on this one. I hope I can take some good pictures and preserve them in the memory to look back in the future. I will stop with this and get back to shooting more pictures to hone my photography skills, hoping one day I will become a sharp shooter instead of a rapid one!

Content below is optional reading for the photographic crowd

Chronological sequence of my cameras

1998 - Samsung Maxima Film Camera
1999 - Nikon Nuvi's 110i APS Film Camera
2002 - Olympus Camedia Brio D-150 1.3MP Digital Camera
2004- Canon S50
2007 - Nikon D40x
2009 - Nikon D90
2009 - Canon A710is point and shoot for Shreya!

Lens collection - 3 interchangeable lens: prime, telephoto zoom and, a standard wide angle zoom lens.
Below are some pictures taken with my D40x SLR taken in Newyork City.
Below are pictures of my new D90 Camera

Pictures taken with my new D90 camera


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Travel Heavy - Inherited Curse?

Monday, March 09, 2009 14 comments

I love to travel and explore new places. During my childhood days, if I had to travel. All I had to do was just hop on to a bus or a train along with my parents. I did not worry a bit about packing my bags, dresses, etc. However, things have changed now. These days I spend a lot of time planning and preparing for the travel ahead. I still remember seeing the sign inside the train coaches, ' Less Luggage, More Comfort: Make travel a pleasure'. I wish I can follow that now.

As much as I enjoy the places I visit, I should also admit, I certainly do not enjoy the pain I go through in getting to those places. Sometimes, planning for all the eventualities during the travel could be the primary reason for this. If I am traveling for a week, I carry dresses, clothing and other essentials for at least 10 days. I remember during my first trip to the US, I did not know the baggage count and weight limits. I stuffed every possible item including those heavy engineering books, training manuals in 3 jumbo bags and arrived in Chennai for my flight. Just before I left for the airport, I called up my travel agent to verify the baggage limits. I was almost double the limit! My brother who had come to drop me along with my parents, had to carry a 'spine-knuckling' 50 Kg bag all the way back to Coimbatore. That was the last time he accompanied my parents to drop me in the airport! Amidst all the drama, I still managed to squeeze a big fat chemical engineering handbook in one of my bags. Why did I carry that book? God only knows. Till date I haven't even opened that book!

During my student days, I shopped and accumulated tiny gifts for every single root of my 'banyan' like family tree. What was the consequence of that shopping spree? When I checked in my bags at Detroit airport for my flight to India, my bags were again overweight by 40 Kgs! However, I did not pull stuff out of my bag. I paid $160 baggage fine and decided to carry the entire load along. No wonder the airline was tilted on one side! All of a sudden, passenger plane became a cargo carrier. I landed in India with 6 huge bags and 2 carry-on duffels. Two cars were required to carry my 'cargo' from the airport. Did I learn a lesson from that trip? No way! On my next trip to India, if not so many bags, I still ended up carrying overweight bags. This time I was not prepared to pay the fine. I had become a pauper by then :( Instead, I pulled out the heavy chocolates out of the bags and stuffed them in my carry on bags. It is funny, 2 guys were required to lift my carry-on duffel bag to the boarding area. It was so heavy, at the end of the journey, I had an elongated arm ;)

I became conscious of the baggage weight after that trip and started weighing my bags beforehand to avoid opening my bags and showcasing my dirty laundry in the airport check-in area! Now that I travel with my family, the baggage allowance has increased. Because of this baggage weight is no longer an issue, it is the total number of bags. For a week long trip, we end up carrying things needed for 14 days. Right from the mini-rice cooker to the first aid kit and baby diapers, we carry every possible item for the trip needs. The problem again is because of planning overkill. I prepare a checklist for the travel and the checklist grows to a very long laundry list by the time I start packing for the trip.

It has become harder to travel with 2 kids and 5-6 big bags. If traveling within the US, on top of these bags, those bulky car seats! I am not sure how many times we would have dropped the car seat in the airport area. Thanks to Shreya, she has voluntarily become the 'designated person' to pick up the car seat and put it back on the luggage cart. They keep falling over and over, no matter what we do. I am just waiting for the day when these kids grow up and we stop carrying the car seats along with all the bulky bags. With the added security checks in the airport, it is even more painful. I am glad they opened separate security lines for families traveling with children. Else we used to create a big bottleneck in the security check area. I am hoping one day, I can start traveling light and easy. May be I should stop using those check-lists or at least prepare a smaller checklist.

Until then I have to live with the 'travel heavy' curse. The curse I probably inherited from my previous birth, during which I incurred the wrath of a rishi muni in deep meditation by knocking over his holy stick ('Danda') and water pot ('Kamandalam') with my big fat briefcase!

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Snooze..snooze ...alarm clock

Sunday, March 01, 2009 19 comments

Another morning, another day. I love to get that extra 10 minutes of sleep. I am sure no one likes to get out of the bed. During my childhood days, I did not use any fancy alarm clock at home. Guess who woke me up every morning? No rewards for the right guess here. It was always my mom, who used to give me a big shake all over my body, which sometimes shattered my wildest dreams. However, waking me was a piece of cake for my mom compared to what she had to go through to wake up my lovely sister!

There were times I witnessed the repeat of Kumbhakarna awakening. However, during other occasions, to wake up my sister, all it took was one person, my elder brother. He is the only 'early bird' in my house who, even now, has the habit of getting up early in the morning. He used a lot novel techniques like pouring ice cold water in the sleepy ears, snatching the blanket, opening the window screens, and a lot more. Of course, like a soldier in Iraq, he had to weather a lot of counter offensive. Whether an alarm clock was needed or not, a first aid kit was a must. While all of this happened, I used to quietly snug in a corner and just watch the battle;) and moreover my brother got that extra kick and pleasure in waking up my sister. So he did not bother me as much.

As we grew up, we started relying more and more on our mom for the early morning alarms. During exam days, we woke up promptly on the first call. Otherwise, we just asked her to come back in 10 minutes time (manual snooze...). There were times my mom had to give us prompts every 10 minute interval for nearly 2 - 3 hours! As I moved out of home, I started using portable alarms and here in the US, I use an alarm which has a pretty cool feature called 'Snooze'. For those, unfamiliar with the 'Snooze', it lets you prolong the wake up buzz by a preset time, usually 10 minutes. I owe a lot to the guy who invented this feature in an alarm. Even these days, I use this feature extensively during the morning buzz.

During my college days in Michigan, I got into the habit of snoozing anywhere from an hour to 2 hours. My hands involuntarily hit the snooze button on the alarm. My poor roommate, who used to sleep on the upper bed of the bunker probably woke up every 10 minute, while I was happily snoozing. I used it to such an extent, one day my roommate politely requested me to set the alarm at least somewhat closer to the time I actually intended to wake up! Thankfully, he was not like my brother. Else he would have poured cold water in my ears!

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Evergreen memories of my first student car

Friday, February 20, 2009 21 comments

When I landed in Kzoo, a small town in Michigan state, little did I know about this country's over dependence on cars. Once I reached the university's off campus apartments, I realized we needed a car to go out anywhere, except for walking to the school. I still remember walking to a K Mart 3 miles from my apartment, to buy my first electronic organizer. Don't ask me how I used it. I hardly did! I once tried for a hitchhike (lift), the driver in that car hastily raised the window glass, I felt like a thug and soon realized people are terrorized by such requests in this country. For each and every grocery trip, we had to depend on some senior student with a car. Frequency of the buses were not too friendly for us to rely on.

I lived with 3 other roommates, and my neighboring apartments were also filled with university students, of which the apartment with 5 desi students had this very interesting person called Swami! Swami is famous for his daring adventures. The only thing he has not attempted so far is jumping of the rainbow bridge in Niagara. Within the first few months of college, one evening, Swami showed up in my apartment with a car sale ad from the university bulletin board. I asked him whether he was joking. But he seemed quite serious about that car ad. It was a red color 1987 Ford Escort hatchback model listed for $400. I told Swami that I did not have much money to spare for a car. Swami came up with a very innovative partnership venture to reduce the financial burden. He suggested, we split the price of the car and use it on a sharing basis. I felt that was a brilliant idea, considering the financial situation we were in and bought into the idea. We wanted to test drive the car, oh man, talk about it. Swami and I went to this seller and asked him for a test drive. He gave the car to us without knowing that both of us had very little driving experience! That test drive was our very the first adventure. We were driving like two blind men behind the wheel, not following signs or directions. Of course, we were proud of our effort. We found the car in drive able condition and wanted to have an expert opinion and took it for another test drive with one of my seniors, who had a much nicer car. My senior friend drove the car, and he initially felt the car was great until we checked under the hood. He opened the hood and there was a gush of smoke, as though someone had been cooking burnt appalams, sitting inside the hood. He suggested we do not buy the car. Swami and I had a discussion that night, and decided we buy it only if the price was much lower than $400. The seller was a student from turkey, going back to his home country. We took that opportunity to low ball it and he agreed to sell it for $300. After that Swami pulled his extreme bargaining tactic from his magic hat. He grabbed the sellers pet parrot on one hand and asked him to sell the car along with the parrot for $300 or just the car alone for $250. That fellow, who apparently loved his bird, succumbed, I wrote the check for $250.

We both agreed and registered the car under my name and I paid the basic insurance for the car. I had already obtained my learners driving permit. The story of passing that driving test deserves a separate blog post. I did a few hours of practicing in the parking lot and then around 11 PM, my room mates who were all excited about the car, wanted to take it for a long drive. It was such a spontaneous drive, one of my roommates was in his lungis as he squatted on the back seat like a vegetable vendor in the farmers market. We drove on a route that was familiar to us, and then came the problem with traffic rules. I made a left turn
at an intersection with blinking red light, without coming to a full stop. Within the next minute, there was a cop car right behind me with responder lights on. Funny part was, no one in our car knew that we had to stop for a cop car with responder lights. In fact, I told my friends that the cop car was trying to stop someone else and obediently moved to the right most lane (the slow lane) and slowed down to 35 mph. The cop car also slowed down and followed us for a while. Losing patience the cop pulled to my immediate left lane and flashed his torch on us and blared on his speaker to pull over, which is when we realized the chase was for us! I put the indicator and pulled over the car. My roommate sitting in the passenger seat walked out of the car as though we do in India. He saw the cop yell at him with a hand on his holster. My room mate rushed back inside the car and buckled up. Man that was a scary moment for him. I am not sure what the cop would have thought when he saw the guy in his lungis in the back seat. That must have been a scary moment for the cop! He asked for my drivers permit and performed some background check, pointed the mistake I had made during the turn and thanked us for practicing during night time before letting us go. From then on, the car became a Draupadhi of cars. It was shared by 5 room mates and I would hardly see it parked. It was either used for somebody's grocery shopping or dropping someone in the university or someone's driving lessons. We made countless trips to Dunkin donuts during the weekends for the late night coffee chats. Almost 10 guys in the neighborhood took their driving road test in my car. I think the car became an artificially intelligent car, programmed for road tests. When I was driving the car during the test, I realized the brakes were not that good. In fact, the examiner hinted I stop well in advance of the stop sign to avoid last minute halts. I told him I was trying my best to stop the car! The max speed the car would do was 55 mph. Which meant we could not take the car on freeway adventures. We enjoyed the car to the fullest extent on local roads itself.

About 3000 miles into the life of the car, we had trouble with the brakes. We thought we could manage until that winter. The car saw its first snow and skidded all over the university streets, like a drunkard on ski. We had the first semester break. Swami left for NJ to visit his family friends. I dropped him in the railway station and drove the car for another week or so and realized the brakes were too low. I decided to take the car to a Midas brake service shop. The shop was closing at that time and we had to go back home. Not being able to stop the car properly, I carefully slowed for traffic lights and got home somehow. The next morning, some of my friends wanted to take the written exam for obtaining the learners permit. I had to take them to the DMV office. 3 of them were reading for the test in the back seat while I was driving along with my other friend in the passenger seat. I realized the brakes were totally gone when I stopped at a turn signal. I could hear the brake drum noise. I turned right and started driving the car straight to the DMV. When I tried to slow down after going downhill, I realized the brakes had gone totally dead. I floored the brake pedal and realized it did nothing to stop the car. I told my roommates about it in the back seat who were busy reading for the road test. They asked me to stop joking and started gigling. I reached for the parking brake and realized it was nothing but a useless lever. I put the car in parking mode which did not help either. I was even tempted to stick my foot out and stop the car like the way bheem boy stops the car in the 80's Kamalahasan movie - Micheal Madhana Kama Rajan. I saw another red light ahead with lots of cars stopped, thanks to my unusually good presence of mind, I made a right turn into a strip mall with a bunch of restaurants and other shops. I made a grand prix style turn at 35 mph into the parking lot and tried to swerve into a bushy area to bring the car to a soft stop. I could not manage it and stopped the car by hitting a brand new minivan. The owner of the pizza shop came out running yelling, "that is my brand new caravan!" I called the insurance and took care of the rest. Every one in our car walked out without a single scratch. Thanks to those safety belts. The car was towed back to my apartment parking lot and one of our seniors gave us ride back home. I bet my room mates who appeared for the driving test in the DMV after a week would have answered one question correctly. The question - "What do you do when your brakes fail?"

The car was parked in the apartment for a while. I somehow eluded to Swami's request for a station pick up, when he got back to town. I took him out to the car park and told him the story. All he did was just laughed. We were deciding on the fate of the car, as we could not have it parked without operating for more than 3 months in the university campus. One day I saw a note on the car windshield. Someone had made an offer to buy our car. We could not believe it. We called the number and realized it was actually a junk yard offer. We negotiated up to $50 and had them tow it away. So the final price of the car? $200. The brakes had come down by 100% though! For the price, the car had served its purpose.

I have owned other cars since then, but the memories from the first one are evergreen.

On a serious note, there were some lessons learned from this adventure -

1. Always check the brakes, before they fail!
2. Wear your seat belts, it can save your life.

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