Tuesday, April 7, 2015

What's in a name?

It has been a while since I updated this blog. My promise of writing about my Antarctica and Argentina trip never materialized. A lot has happened since then; I have been busy; procrastinate is my middle name; all excuses, but those posts are coming - some day. However, something happened to me a couple of days ago that has forced my hand. At least right now, when it is fresh in my mind, I think it is too good a story to let pass. So let’s leave Antarctica for later and focus on a name confusion that almost left me stranded 50 miles from my destination, middle of the night, with the phone battery dead  and lugging two bags and a suitcase.

Destination: A hostel in downtown San Francisco. I am here for a materials science conference but that hardly matters to this story.
Date: The night before Easter.
Relevant names: First - Arun, Kiran; Last - Sasikumar

So, what’s in a name? Nothing much; just a means to waste everybody’s time or if you hate doing that, a means to get stranded in the middle of nowhere. I had booked a shuttle from the SFO airport to my hostel when I booked my flight tickets. It was an Orbitz voucher that I could have redeemed at the airport, provided I had a printout of the receipt. But well, being a footnote in a long confirmation email, that was one point I missed till it was too late.

I landed a little before 9 pm and about half an hour later found the SuperShuttle stop outside the airport. I approached the friendly looking SuperShuttle employee near the stop and mentioned that I had forgotten the printout of my confirmation. That was fine, he said. All he needed was my name. I gave him my last name. He found it in his system without much delay. Just to confirm he read out my first name. It sounded about right. Something was off, but this was not the first time some one had totally killed the pronunciation. It ended with “run” and that was good enough for me. Next, he asked me for my destination. I started with the address, but as soon as I was done with the street name he cut me off. I suppose he was satisfied that I was the right customer.

A few minutes later, a shuttle shows up. The employee points me towards it and along with 5 other passengers, I head out. The driver reads out everyone’s names. Once again, he kills my first name. Ends with “run”, same last name, no issues. And, off we go.

Fortunately, I wasn’t tired and was paying attention to the road signs. My first indication that something was wrong was when I see signs for San Jose and San Francisco side by side and we followed the road south from the airport. All right, maybe we are taking a short detour to drop another passenger off, I thought. Fair enough! I waited for 5 more minutes and I realized that we were still heading south. Road signs for Half Moon Bay were becoming more and more prominent. Thankfully, I had been here twice before to know that Half Moon Bay was definitely south of SFO. Just to clarify, I asked the girl sitting next to me where we were heading. Away from SFO - definitely. I spent half a minute evaluating my options and then I informed the driver. I was apparently being taken to Sunnyvale, as another Mr. Sasikumar had made this reservation. Fortunately, everyone on the shuttle was patient enough to let the driver take me back to the airport.

I later realized that being an Orbitz voucher and not a direct reservation on the SuperShuttle website, I was not even in their system. So yeah, all this was partly my fault. In my defense, though, if not for the namesake I would have known that my reservation was not valid before I was even on board the wrong shuttle. I would have asked if anything could be done without the printed voucher and they would have said no, I would have chastised myself for being an idiot and wasting 20 bucks, made a new reservation and just reached the hostel without any drama. No story there!

Funny thing is, my last name is not really that common in India. At the least it is not a generic caste/community based name that a million people share. Still, if this happened in India I could have understood. I would think that the odds of this happening in the US is real slim. However, sometimes random coincidences can put you in a real pickle. As a side note, to put the randomness into perspective, the other passenger has my brother’s name. In any case, one thing is for sure now. I am never again going to assume people are mispronouncing my name.

So, what’s in name? Just a means to waste everyone’s time in this case, but, for all you know, there could be a contract out on someone that shares your name, and for the sake of argument let us assume that the assassin is a racist who cannot distinguish between Indian faces. I suppose, you will be left wondering, for a split second, when you feel that bullet go right through your head.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Sorry, I accidentally cancelled your good visa!!!

Hello everybody. I am finally back in the US and cosily settled in cold, cold Troy that is slowly recovering from the effects of the scarily named Polar Vortex. Antarctica trip was awesome. No, that just doesn’t quite cut it; English needs a better word. It was truly amazing. So many stories, so many great moments, quite a few adventures, and not least, the people, I just do not know where to start. I have documented most of the trip and after I finish sifting through the 2000 or so photographs I’ll update the blog. Right now, however, is a story of my reentry in the United States of America.

On 28th December 2013 I landed in Newark airport at 7.22 p.m on flight number 1970 operated by Copa Airlines from Panama City. The point of origin of the travel was Buenos Aires, Argentina. After a short wait in the immigration line I was called towards the immigration officer. I do not remember the counter number, however.

I handed over my passport and I-20 to the officer. The officer spent a minute or so perusing my passport, sifting through the pages and inspecting quite a few of the visa and immigration stamps in my passport, in particular the Tanzanian visa from 3 years ago, the Argentinian visa and the stamp from Esperanza Base, Antarctica. He then took a pen and scribbled something on my passport.

He immediately looked up, as apologetically as possible after what looked like a tiring day, and said, “sorry, I accidentally cancelled your good visa!!!”. I wasn’t sure how to respond and before I could say anything he asked, “do you plan on traveling outside the country anytime in the next 6 months?”. The visa would have anyway expired in June 2014 and I wasn’t planning to travel but instead focus on graduating as soon as possible. When I replied in the negative, he said “good” and then proceeded to write below his “cancelled” note that it was done in error. He wrote the date as well. At that point I was too tired to think about it and since he was not denying me entry I let it go.  After the fingerprint scan and immigration stamp he apologized again and allowed me to leave.

Since I am on F1 visa and my I-20 graduation date is in May 2016 I can legally be in the United States. However, if I leave the country, upon return I’ll be denied entry unless I renew the visa. I hope to travel to Africa and India in August, and if so I’ll renew my visa at the Chennai Consulate. So as of now, fortunately, there is nothing to be concerned about, as confirmed by the International Students office at RPI.

There is one thing, though, that rankles me. Of all the pages the officer had to stamp he chose the one from Antarctica. That was a souvenir, an unexpected stamp that is quite rare. I was hoping to keep that page pristine, free of any other stamp. Oh, well!!!

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Antarctica Chronicle

Hello everybody. Back here after a long while. Research has finally shown some positive signs and I am hoping to graduate soon. But I am not here to talk about research. Right now I am sitting in the den of Cruz del Sur, a nice homely hostel with a dog named Kren, in the town of Ushuaia in the Tierra del Fuego province of Argentina. In three days time I will be catching the expedition ship ‘Ushuaia’, crossing the Drake Passage, exploring the Weddell Sea and docking at various points on the Antarctic peninsula and the South Shetland islands.

Yes, Antarctica!!! I hear you ask the inevitable question, one I have heard several times over the last one year, when my friends and I started planning for the trip - why Antarctica? Honesty, I don’t know what else to say, other than, why not; and then point you to Ernest Shackleton and the ill-fated loss of Endurance followed by the daring  rescue, Amundsen and Scott’s expedition to the South Pole; and, if the pleasure of travel and sense of wonder seeing new places doesn’t do it for you, then I’ll show you this photo. Actually, forget the rest. The photo alone should do.

Courtesy: http://antarcticjourney.wordpress.com/
Make no mistake, it is an expensive, most likely once-in-a-lifetime trip; and, a proper chronicle or diary is a must when it comes to these once-in-a-lifetime affairs. So with multiple follow-up posts that’s what I’ll do. Right now, I’ll sign off with the following photographs from the very windy Ushuaia.

One day, maybe I’ll climb some of these

It must be wonderful living in such a cradle

Looking at the southern most tip of the Andes


Monday, February 11, 2013

What's your excuse?

Last weekend at Okemo we happened to see a boy skiing on a specially designed wheelchair. Yesterday at Stratton there was a girl on a single left ski using specially designed crutches. I will definitely think about that the next time I come up with a silly excuse to not do something.

In other skiing news, thanks to Nemo and the fresh and thick coat of snow we were finally able to ski down two of the double-diamond expert only slopes at Stratton. Here’s a picture of the last section of Upper Down Easter and that’s not me posing for the pic. Just to brag, that slope is steeper than it looks :)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Why do we fall sir? So we might learn to pick ourselves up - Batman Begins

Finally, a long overdue update. I have been meaning to be more regular but somewhere I lost the way. Work got in the way, I guess. Or maybe I was just plain lazy.

Diary entry: Jan 27th 2013

I first thought of writing this in early December after my first ski trip this season. These thoughts have been, then, swirling inside my mind for the last few weeks. Never really got around to actually writing them down. Now, sitting in my car after skiing at Stratton for the 3rd time this season, I finally stopped procrastinating.

After starting my doctoral studies in the fall of 2009, thesis apart, nothing much has meant more to me than skiing. Personally I have found it the very epitome of the post's title. I used to be afraid of failure and as a consequence of trying new things, stepping outside my comfort zone. What if I embarrassed myself in front of scores of people? I used to over-think and later regret.

Not anymore; not since my first ski trip when I could hardly handle an easy slope and had to be brought down on a sled, the ultimate embarrassment one can have at a ski resort. Even later, when I mustered courage to try again, slipping and losing balance every few meters when everyone around you are skiing down with immeasurable skill is highly demotivating. Some skiers or snowboarders used to go past me twice before I made it down.

Yet, like Sir Bruce's spider I kept riding up and falling down. I really don't know why, but I kept going and finally pushed through. I am hardly an expert now, far from it really, but I feel good about myself and I really enjoy skiing down with the wind on my face, negotiating the slope at the fastest speed I can control.

I still fall, especially when I take the next baby step toward working a tougher slope. I don't mind falling anymore. As an extension, I don't mind failing anymore. I don't mind making attempts to learn something new. I feel better for it. I couldn't have asked for a better life-changer than skiing.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An afternoon at the Gorge

It’s been a while, a month to be exact, since I even thought about updating the blog. Am I getting disinterested? God, no! Just that “pressure” has been getting to me.

[For those who are interested, I have to calculate the local pressure in a spherically symmetric atomistic system that is both heterogenous and in thermal non-equilibrium; and, the freaking math does not add up. If you have got a clue, do let me know.]

Anyway, I happened to visit a nearby gorge in a short afternoon stroll with the Photo Club last weekend. I haven’t been there before in spite of living close by for over 2 years. What a shame! Here are the pics.

A "hermit" meditating near the mini-falls. No kidding! He was practicing some new-age meditation technique, shouting his lungs out.

No doubt that was the last thing we expected to see; at least I haven't seen such randomness before in my 2 years here.

Location: Poestenkill Gorge Park, Troy, NY
Anyway, March is here and hopefully I'll keep y'all posted more often.  Cheers and until next time.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Jugaad Ka Desh

This happens only in India, rather, wonly yin yindia.
Location: Mumbai

jugaad n. an improvised or jury-rigged solution; inventiveness, ingenuity, cleverness.