USA trip 2018: West to East coast

On our US trip we were in 12 locations in 21 days, on 10 Greyhound buses (4000 km), 2 flights (3000 km) with 6 bags of luggage across 8 hotels. In all our sightseeing, we walked a total of 250 km.
US trip 2018 frame
We visited:
  1. San Francisco ( < Istanbul < New Delhi)
  2. Yosemite National Park, 269 km by bus
  3. Los Angeles (bus) 616 km
  4. San Diego (bus) 807 km
  5. Las Vegas (bus) 435 km
  6. Grand Canyon West rim (bus) 200 km
  7. Dallas (flight)
  8. Houston (connecting bus)
  9. Lake Charles (bus), 505 km, Baton Rouge (connecting bus) 204 km
  10. New Orleans (bus) 130 km
  11. Memphis (bus) 635 km
  12. Washington (flight)
  13. New York (bus) 360 km
All photos and videos are self-shot.  Spherical (Google Street View) photos (view in Chrome browser, or Google street view app):

https://www.google.com/maps/contrib/114770083174186668538/photos

Click to view a snapshot gallery from the DLSR-

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Our trip started with San Francisco. After checking into the Marker hotel, we walked around a bit in Union Square. We observed the classic Frisco trams which still do their trips. So well maintained! Chatted with homeless folks at a Burger King. Despite their situation they do not mess with your space.
DAY 2: On the second day we met our tour bus guide Kimberly of Extranomical Tours. We drove around town, Fisherman’s wharf, Palace of Fine Arts and Theatre, Golden Gates Bridge and other iconic spots. We went across to the Alcatraz on a boat. The AV tour of the prison is immersive enough to make you feel what it was like back then. Back in town we learn that San Fran is very expensive to live in. Rent can average at $4000 a month.
Day 3: Yosemite
we met Constantine of Extranomical tours who took us to Yosemite which took the whole day. Though it was raining it was a good trip anyway. Stopped at Turlock for a while where we got sandwiches packed for the way. The high quality of San Fran’s local produce creates awesome food- the air, water, meat, milk, strawberries and awesome people. The landscape here gives meaning to the phrase ‘rolling hills of California’.

we headed for LA via MegaBus. Our original plan was to do West to East coast of US by road. At LA, we were picked up by our French driver Philip who migrated from Paris in 1970 and felt very strongly about how much LA has changed since then. After checking into the Best Western plus Sunset Blvd. walked down Hollywood Boulevard down the walk of fame. Glanced around at souvenir shops. Marijuana is legal in the US so we could smell weed all over the streets. There were also large signs of free HIV checks at one pharmacy. We also spotted a Ferrari painted in weed graphics claiming to be the fastest marijuana delivery service. Did the Hollywood celebrity homes tour. Saw the homes of Silvester Stallone, Paris Hilton, Borat. Later we walked from our hotel to Hollywood Boulevard. Found a freestyle artist at the footlocker crossing. Damn he was good. Check him out-

 

Great weather (Street View) (2). We stopped for a while at Southbound Aliso creek rest area. In San Diego we visited three places – the USS Midway – a large Navy ship, La Jolla, hotel Del Coronado and old town in San Diego. Our co-travellers were from Israel.
Our guide and driver Michael was great till lunch then he fell sick after he ate something. Took an Uber back to LA. We walked around in farmers market and shopped at Barnes and Nobles.
If you have grown up on Hollywood films, do check out the Mecca. Universal has made an entertainment theme from films they made like Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, Fast and Furious, Mummy returns and Transformers. We went for the roller coaster rides which were unforgettable. What is amazing is that the entire park is barely 4 blocks and they managed to make it so much fun. Here’s a collection of reactions from the Jurassic Park roller coaster ride.
(Street View across the Bellagio, High roller,
Stopped at Barstow on our bus trip to Vegas (Street View). Incredible town this. There are things, businesses here you will not see anywhere in the world- not even in the rest of the US. Even the locals say there is no place in America like Vegas.
Ten things we did in Las Vegas apart from gambling, will you believe –
1) drop on and off bus tour,
2) high roller Ferris wheel,
3) ate at Heart Attack Grill. This restaurant has a hospital theme. To start with the nurses (servers) dresses you up with a patient’s gown. Burgers are called Bypass burger, double bypass, quadruple, sextuple and octuple. ‘Flatliner’ fries and wine is served in a IV drip. If you waste your food, you have the choice of being spanked with wooden plate.
4) shopped at Fashion Show,
5) 4 floors of M&Ms store – incredible fun zone. These folks know how to sell an experience.
 
6) walked the Vegas strip. Even if you are broke, you can be entertained just walking down the strip. Too much fun going on here.
7) gambled at Venetian (ok this happened)
8) ate at Shaky Shack
9) Bodies Exhibition at BALLY’s. This happens to be a permanent exhibition unlike the one in Fulton street in New York. Bally’s also allowed visitors to take photography and videos.
10) Circus de Soleil at Bellagio. Unbelievable show. An abstract dance performance where the stage changed from floor to swimming pool. The performers would jump from 20-30 feet into the water after their performance.
Day 8 – day trip to Grand Canyonvia GreyLine bus we stopped at Hoover dam, chopper and boat. Our most memorable part of the entire trip, no doubt. (Street View), Hualapai Ranch
On the way to the airport, our driver Peder says there is no place like Vegas in the US.
Our driver Sandor met us at Dallas airport. He has migrated from Hungary. We checked in at Crowne Plaza downtown. We walked 16 km and saw these places-
  1. Visit to 6th floor museum– from where JFK was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald,
  2. Perot Science museum,
  3. Kennedy Memorial
  4. World aquarium,
  5. Klyde Warren park,
    1. Reunion tower. 2. 

Dallas apparently has the least corporate tax so this is home and headquarters to many corporations. This place felt a bit like Gurgaon – a lot of glass buildings and eat-outs and food courts on the ground floor. A lot of old traditional heritage buildings still look good around Elm street where our hotel is. We stopped on the way to Houston.

Day 12 – Houston  1. Street view  2. Houston Greyhound bus stop
We start our bus trip through the south. Took a bus via Tornado Bus Company to Houston. Though we reached at 1230 noon and the next bus to Lake Charles was at 8pm, we decided to wait at the station and not go galavanting into Houston. Returning to the station would be cutting it too fine. Read ‘Sapiens’ halfway.
We stayed the night at our hotel at Lake Charles. We took the morning bus to New Orleans from Greyhound station at 8am. We chatted up a bit with Rana Afzal from Pakistan at the greyhound counter. He has been here for 2 years and he says his heart ain’t here. This bus goes to Baton Rouge – a connecting station to New Orleans.
Street view photos 1. Natchez steam boat, 2
We arrive at New Orleans and driver Lamon is a retired school teacher from New Orleans. He showed us a few spots to visit. We check into our hotel at Canal Street. New Orleans is heaven for creative people. We walked down Fisherman’s Street down St Peters Street. Then the jazz cruise in the evening was on board a steamboat called Natchez. A band called ‘The Dukes of Dixieland’ played onboard. This was a high point of our trip here. Insanely talented folks came out of this town. We deliberately reduce and subjugate ourselves to a limiting culture. The same country be it US or India has varying cultures. How well you fare depends directly on the culture you are allowed (or not) to thrive in.
Day 15 – March 24
Today we woke up early and walked along the aquarium on the Mississippi River side. The weather is just right – sunny and pleasant wind along the river side. Later around noon went to Lafitte for the swamp ride. Spotted a few alligators, held a baby alligator in my hand on the boat. After a few hours we got back to New Orleans. Walked down the street in the French Quarters area till night and got back.
Spotted some unbelievable musical talent on the streets of New Orleans. This is the birthplace, the bedrock, incubator of upcoming talent.
Day 15 – March 25
Taking the bus from NOLA (New Orleans Louisiana) back to Baton Rouge for our connecting bus to Memphis. There is a marathon going on in New Orleans so our driver had to drive around a bit to reach our bus station. We made it in time though.
Greyhound bus trips show what America is really about- the people and landscape changed drastically from green California, Vegas desserts and swamps of Louisiana. The people are real. We travelled with people of all ethnicity and they were still being themselves. Compared to this, all hotels, planes and airports are the same across the world now with people being their artificial covers. Bus trips are real. Chatted up with a couple who had worked for a Patel family and he figured I was from India. He felt Indians got too much into religious politics like Jews and kept the businesses to their own kinds!
Stopped at Jackson for our next bus to Memphis.
Stopped at Durant, Mississippi for passengers pickup
We are at the crowne plaza in Memphis. Walked down to Beale Street which celebrates B.B King, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.

Day 16- Memphis
Street View photo  Beale Street
our driver Larry took us to Memphis airport and gave us a short dose on the city. This is home to rock and Blues. The music from the movie Blues Brothers came from Memphis and the city is also breeding ground to a lot of other genres. Memphis is also FedEx’s headquarters so the airport has a small passenger terminal compared to the cargo terminal. We boarded a small American Airlines plane called American Eagle which was a tiny 50 seater. It has just three rows and the ceiling was only 6 feet.
Day 17  – Washington 360 Street View photos 1. Lincoln Memorial
When we reached Washington our driver Kocou from Benin said he had lived in New York earlier and liked Washington better. We walked around till the Capitol. The weather is bitter cold and windy. We should have worn more sweaters before stepping out in 3 degrees Celsius. We grabbed a quick meal and a gallon of water from Walgreens.
Woke up at 5am to make the most of our single day in Washington. There is something about high energy levels here despite so many cars. People were jogging around the Capitol in the noon and evening. We walked almost 12 km today. We had breakfast, walked down to Union station for our hop on and off bus. Saw quite a bit of Washington on the three tracks. Starting from the Capitol, Lincoln memorial, Georgetown and China town. At Macy’s we met an Indian at the luggage counter- Mr Bala Rao who migrated here from Chennai in the 60s. He was a vegetarian back then, then started eating meat since there was not much choice for vegetarians back then. He is 85, never married. Later at the end if the day we walked back to our hotel on New York avenue. Our phone batteries were down and I left the charger in the hotel, so when we lost our way in the night so we took a cab- our only cab through the entire trip. Paid $10 for 2 km!
We reached The Big Apple at 3pm via Peter Pan bus. Weather wasn’t looking good at 3 degrees Celsius but no one seems to care. All shops would be shut for Easter on the coming weekend so everyone was shopping in a hurry. We walked from our hotel to Apple store on 5th Avenue and back through Times Square.
Day 19
The next day it was drizzling but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone in Manhattan. We walked to B&H Video – a landmark store for photography and gadgets. This store is a must visit for anybody interested in as much as a connecting wire.
There’s also Macy’s a few blocks away. All stores here are landmark icons in Manhattan – from the NBA, M&Ms, Apple, McDonalds, Macy’s, Abercrombie & Fitch.
Day 21
Took the hop on and off bus today and went sight seeing. We were at Freedom tower, Wall Street bull, across the bridge to Brooklyn. We chatted up with elderly ladies on the streets and restaurants. We met an elderly lady from Hyderabad on Wall street. She has been travelling alone all over Manhattan via GreyLine Hop on and off buses. When we walked into a restaurant, another old lady got chatting with us. She said we looked like Spanish folks. I said most people from equatorial countries like Egypt, India and Malaysia looked alike. Walked around to Crate and Barrel, Container store, M&M store in Time Square to pick up chocs for gifts.
Day 22
We took the tour bus to uptown around Central park and saw some celebrity homes through Central Park West and Harlem. We got off at Guggenheim museum, looked in a bit and walked upto Museum of Modern Art. From there we walked up to Long Island Rail and went down to Hicksville to meet family.  Dropped in at a gorgeous store called Micheals which is paradise city for creative tools, material and stationary.
Day 23 – still in NY
We walked to Bryant Park in the morning and walked into Whole Foods Market across the park. The range (and size) of American produce was exhausting- from strawberries, onions, cheese, meat, chocolates. There was also a sitting area where you could serve yourself and eat there. We had our last meal at Joe’s pizza in Times Square. Here we spotted the famous naked cowboy again. This guy is incredible – strolling around in 2 degrees playing his guitar.

Our trip through the US changed something in our heads; too much of fresh air maybe. But we saw the country differently – for better reasons. We understood people better (and partial reasons for why Trump won). But more importantly we also saw India better. There are good and bad things about every place. Thats what travel does I guess. About Greyhound buses –  when we returned we Googled Greyhound buses and found that it was not rated highly and most people mentioned loss of luggage. Others we spoke with had a few things to say about the people on board. Our experience was different all the way. We interacted with so many people at the stations and got back with all our 6 bags we travelled with. Its upto you and how you see things so have a great time on your visit to to the US- by far the greatest country on the planet right now.

 

I carried my DSLR throughout the trip – a Canon 6D Mark 2. Though it is heavy, it did two things – I got high quality photographs and it opened up conversations with total strangers in shops and buses. One also tends to look more carefully and compose a picture while looking into a DSLR.

Our trip was organized by Dewberry Holidays LLP, Mumbai. A great team stayed online with us throughout the trip. Our friends wanted to know what difference really does an organizer bring to the trip. Well, somewhere you need the experience of others to optimize your trip. The organizer will at the most suggest the most popular, relevant, best or historic things to see. Its upto you if you want to go there or not. Either this or you do your own research and travel.

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Photo-comic breakdown

My portable desktop studio came in today. This was ordered via Instagram a few weeks back. This is the larger size with a white and a black curved backdrop.
photo

This setup needed a test so I figured some toys lying around could help in a quick story.

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Rock Garden, Chandigarh 2017

A wedding in the family took us to Chandigarh. Serendipity brought us to Rock Garden. Tickets are for Rs 30 and in case you missed your morning workout, the artificial terrain is good for a December afternoon.

This little paradise made from urban waste was created by Nek Chand – a government employee in the roads department during the 50s. Though this is my second visit here, I noticed new things. Apparently everyone who visits observes something different. Sculptures and surfaces of labyrinths are made out of discarded bangles, sockets, ceramics, tiles, malba (broken concrete), cement sacks, stones and pottery. If you are visiting Chandigarh, you must keep aside two hours for this getaway in the city. Its a quite and serene place. What really spoils the experience is the selfie-obsessed crowd, so do try to be here early in the morning.
Nek Chand’s creativity is amazing even today. We say the creative space has exploded today so this must have been an insane challenge back then. Imagine convincing the bureaucracy with your artistic fancy. For one man to have this vision, fight against all odds and realize his dream is nothing short of inspiring. Do make it a point to walk into the museum which displays all the awards and photos covering New Chand’s life. There’s a section that showcases dolls made from discarded clothes. We had had our fill of visual textures! Towards the far end of the park there is a place of swings. I had to try this out. Its a surreal place and a must-visit for designers, environmentalists, innovators, entrepreneurs, photographers and children. Be inspired as early as you can.

Once you see things like this, you wonder what stops you from doing things you wanted to. It takes time and effort, but things are achievable if you stick to your goals. Rock Garden will tell you that you can make anything out of nothing, and nothing comes easy.

Udaipur 2017

On our second road trip to Udaipur, we figured its not about the palaces, kings and history so much, but more about its people. These are regular folks who work in palaces, museums and common areas for tourists. They make the city feel great, and your experience memorable. What we are doing here is just watching people going about their daily task. We are sketching and photographing them without a purpose or agenda.

 

 

Neemrana fort palace, Rajasthan

Way back in 2007 when I drove past Neemrana towards Jaipur, my friend and I tried a stopover at the Neemrana Fort Palace. The palace has limited rooms and is a heritage property, and we were not allowed in without prior booking.
Cut to 2015, my wife and I are here with much planning. The place is beautiful. The food is organic and there are no TVs in the rooms. The property is on various levels since its on a hill side. Our room was on the 9th ‘floor’, so we walked up exploring the palace. It’s so heartening to see the staff maintaining the beauty and grandeur of this lovely home of kings. Perfect!

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Here’s a glimpse of the experience-

McLeodganj nun

McLeodganj 2015

McLeodganj nun
This lady was spinning the prayer wheel in the main McLeodganj Buddhist temple. I pulled out my camera and ran up to face here. She looked up and smiled at me. Next thing she made me go around this temple. This was the most spiritual experience I had there. Click here to see the complete collection.

Ushering in the new year had to be different this time in some way and the call came from good old McLeodganj, Dharamshala. Our friend Ani planned out much of it and we decided to spend a long year-end vacation in the small Tibetan

Arjun Kariyal Photography
Kid and monk talking. McLeodganj has a photo opp at every corner. All you need to do is click.

town. It was bitterly cold in Delhi and the BholeNath Volvo drove all the way from Delhi to Chandigarh at 30kmph. Bus journeys have become very comfortable lately. Our previous trips were to Manali and Beawar in Rajasthan. Though the roads have not changed much, these Volvos have made road travelling a pleasure. Some of them have free wi-fi on board which sadly work only sometimes. The plug points next to every seat are thoughtful though. There is a stopover at a roadside dhaba typically.

Some brilliant coffee art happening at Cafe Moon Peak, McLeodganj.
Some brilliant coffee art happening at Cafe Moon Peak, McLeodganj.

We reached Dharamshala early morning and checked in at Zambala Hotel. The rooms were nice and the washrooms were clean; which is all we really needed since we spent all day walking around McLeodganj. One of Ani’s friends runs Moon Peak Restaurant so we had breakfast there. The guys who run this joint make amazing coffee and their creativity shows on top of the coffee they leave with the Hershey’s and cream. The one thing we noticed around here was the peace between dogs, monkeys and humans. The local mutts were dozing off in the winter sun, inside restaurants and all over the streets. None of them were barking or fighting at all. Too much peace.

Red Bull cans separated from other trash on the trek to Triund, McLeodganj
Red Bull cans separated from other trash on the trek to Triund, McLeodganj

By day three we had scanned much of the streets and cafe’s here, so we figured it was time to stretch our ligaments a little more. We walked down to St. John’s Church on day two. We had heard much of a trek to Triund- a snow covered peak 7 kilometers further up. Though my wife and I are reasonably fit and run regularly, this was no cake-walk. On the 31st morning we started to trek up. The road disappeared in a few hundred meters and it was more like what we see in The Lord of the Rings as we trekked over stones and rocks. There was a path but it narrowed in most places and got steeper as we reached the top. Most of the trekkers were in their early 20s so this was clearly going to be good workout. Half-way up there was a cafe which served a bottle of water and Coke for Rs 50 each. What was delightful was that the trekkers and locals had separated the waste in metals, plastic and organic in three separate bags. There was this pile of Red Bull cans separated from the other trash.

its the last kilometer that is the toughest. There is a tendency to ask people returning on how much more to go for the top. The standard response was- ‘Oh just a little bit more but its worth it.’ We reached Triund top by 2pm. It was cold but pleasant up here. We met Vijay who we chatted up with at Moon Peak restaurant. The three of us had tea up here, took some selfies and headed back to town. Here’s my 360 degree Photosphere from Triund.

We met Sami Siva, who’s works were pretty awesome actually, and that includes his cooking. We later met at Hotel Tibet for lunch where the Tibetan chopseuy was the most delicious non-vegetarian meal I had had in a long time.

I decided to carry my camera with me despite the bulk. Its a Canon 500D with a Tamron 18-270mm lens- my best travel kit yet. Here are some photos taken in that blissful one week. This was one sketch I made while I was there.

Happy New Year!

Arjun Kariyal McLeodganj sketch
Arjun Kariyal McLeodganj sketch

Naggar 2014

My annual leave had to be spent doing nothing, so Naggar it was during the off-season. This is my third trip to this secluded village- 20 km from Manali on the other side of the Beas river. We took the Volvo bus from Himachal Bhawan in Delhi which started at 6 pm and we reached Manali at 7:30 am the next day. The other alternative was to drive down in our own car that but that meant spending the day behind the wheel. The bus ride that took all night saves a day; not to mention the beating your car would take on these mountain roads. One barely feels the pot holes and the road conditions in the Volvo buses. Nearing Manali, We missed our stop at Patlikuhal before the bridge so we went all the way to Manali and took a cab to Naggar (Rs 550).
The sleepy town was awaiting its tourists after Holi, so it was nice and peaceful when we reached. We stayed at a government-run place called ‘The Palace’, which was originally built in 1460 and was renovated and converted into a hotel.

We booked the best room on the property called ‘Fozal Peak Suite’- which sounded like a corruption of ‘Frozen’ peak. Nevermind… the view from our balcony was lovely and it was a bright sunny day. It was cold though and the water from the taps was finger-numbing cold.

We walked down to a restaurant called ‘The Nightingale’ which has been around for atleast 11 years since I visited the first time. Though renovated and more modern looking now, the food was still good and expensive. A pizza and a pasta with locally made fruit juices cost us Rs. 850.

On day two we walked around a little more towards Nicholas Roerich’s home and museum which was uphill. Though the ground floor was closed, we walked around the house and to the first floor. The inside of his home was like a time box, frozen in with furniture and artefacts of that time.

After all this walking we needed to eat. We had heard so much about the local trout fish that we decided to give it a shot. Its interesting how its served here- entirely with the head and tail, with vegetables!

On Sunday, the locals were playing Holi here. As we went about exploring the hillside, we spotted the local villagers meeting at a temple. The celebration got us interested and we decided to join them.

One thing that we noticed instantly was the decency with which they played Holi, compared to the way city folks play.
The hotel had a great view of the village and valley below. This was a great opportunity to study bird flight. Since Art school days, bird flight and crows have been interesting subjects.

Just in case this looks easy, it took over 300 clicks to get these right. Getting clear photos of the crows in flight meant, zooming in and following, focusing and clicking. The work paid off.

Finally on the day we were checking out, the weather changed for the worse. It rained the night before and everything around was freezing up. Here’s the before/after of the weather in Naggar-

It was a great trip at the end of it all. Naggar stays on top of my fave spots in the world.