Monday, January 18, 2016

Californian winter

This winter, I spent two vacation weeks in San Jose, in the Bay Area of California. To be honest, I thought it would be sunny and warm, as you expect California to always be. However, I realised its actually cold there in the winters:). The temperatures were only marginally better than London, plus it was rainy the first week. The weather did improve later on though and it turned out to be a fun and relaxing two weeks.

Of the two weeks I was there, I mostly spent time with family and a couple of old friends; shopped (a lot of time actually!) and rest of the time relaxed. We did travel a bit too, went skiing in Lake Tahoe, and took quick day trips to the seaside resort towns of Sausalito and Carmel. But most of the time was spent in and around San Jose itself. I also got a taste of life in the Bay Area, and now think it can be another place other than London that I can think of settling in.

Bay Area

I found the Bay Area very relaxing as expected. The whole area is quite open and spread out, and there are apparently 101 cities with about 8 million people living there. This is good on the one hand but then has a bit of a disadvantage too. One, given how distributed it is, you end up needing a car to go anywhere. Second, there is not that much to do in the smaller cities other than shop. There are no parks like in London, or options to just walk to someplace. There are many malls all around but they are also all spread out and you need to drive to get anywhere.

So we ended up shopping a lot, mostly in the nearby mall of Valley Fair (at least 3 trips in two weeks if not more!) plus two trips to the Gilroy outlet mall which is about 45 mins drive from San Jose. The trips were totally worth it as prices in US are much lower than in UK. But it does get boring after a while seeing the same brands everywhere all the time.

Stanford University
One of the afternoons, we made a quick trip to Stanford University and walked around the area. The University is located in Palo Alto, the same area as Facebook is in:). It was a pretty campus, with huge green grounds everywhere. The main building, the Church and the clock tower were impressive (though not as much as Oxford or Cambridge). It felt like such a calm world within the busy urban landscape outside. Would be fun to study there for sure. The area around Palo Alto was nice to drive in too, lots of beautiful houses in the area.

One of the days, I did a Tesla test ride on the P90D too and I must say I loved it! Its also the first time I have ever test ridden a car:). What I loved about it was two things - one, the Ludicrous mode which allows you to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph within 2.9 secs. It feels like you are in one of those sci-fi movies where the rocket is moving ahead very fast. I would definitely recommend everyone to try it. The second of course was how quiet the car was. It almost felt surreal, how can a car not make a lot of noise? The Tesla is designed very well, its very spacious, has two boots and very easy-to-drive controls. Tesla now has an auto-pilot mode too which I did not get a chance to test, but I think is a definite must-do for the next time.

San Jose Gurudwara
The last day of the trip, we visited the Gurudwara of San Jose. Its located on a hill, with a great view of San Jose. We spent some time in the Gurudwara, which was very calming and then had langar there, which was tasty as expected.

One thing which I found disturbing was this board right in the middle of the langar. Its very clear what philosophy they are propagating - an anti-India feeling. And the fact that a foreigner is behind this quote is not a surprise at all! To be honest, I felt like walking out from there but then thought that its a God's place, and the issue I had was with the people who put up the board, not God. So decided against it.

We drove around a lot in the Bay Area and I was always impressed with the picturesque sunsets every evening. With the sea, the mountains, the clouds, the clear blues of the sky - it always made for mesmerising moments. While driving along the highway, I also saw names of so many companies and startups, whose apps I have used - Avaya, Evernote and so on. The whole startup scene felt so much more real and alive when I saw all those company boards.

House prices in the whole Bay Area have been going up crazily in the last few years, apparently they are now close to London prices! Which is surprising given there is so much empty land all around. Its all the startup and IPO money talking I guess. Plus all the houses there look like they are made of cardboard (because it is an earthquake prone area). I wonder why they are so expensive then?

The traffic here is not too good either as people break the rules all the time. Also service is quite bad everywhere. People talk too much and don't work efficiently. Plus feel much more rude than people in UK. Was an interesting experience to note these differences nevertheless:).

Lake Tahoe

We spent a weekend skiing in Lake Tahoe, though the intial plan was to be there for 4 days. One day was lost when there was a snowstorm there (was good for the snow though) and the other day was lost because of terrible traffic. Even though Lake Tahoe supposedly is 3.5 hours from San Jose, it took us almost 6 hours to reach there. There was just so much traffic on the way, with snow chains and moving very slowly, it took us 3 hours to cover a 40 mins distance! The scenery during this time was pretty to look at - white hills and valleys with snow on the trees all around.

Ski run
There are many ski resorts in the area. We went to Heavenly which is in South Lake Tahoe city. It is a nice little village providing access to multiple slopes. The first day since we reached at 2pm, we just spent some time eating and walking around. It was so cold (-10 degrees) that we were not in the mood for any more walking and promptly checked-in into our accommodation:). We had booked a house very conveniently located about 0.6 miles from the resort. It was shaped round like an igloo and was very cosy and well decorated.

Lake Tahoe from the top
The next two days we skied along the various slopes of the resort. I took lessons on the first day and realised that the slope markings are different and easier than the ones in Europe. The blues here are the second level of slopes but still easier than the blues in Europe which are the lowest level there. Overall the skiing was relatively smooth and easy and there were very few moghuls which is always welcome:). The slopes were fun - lots of easy blues all around, with magnificent views of the lake and I particularly loved the Stagecoach, Ridge Run and the Galaxy run.

This year the snow was good, and a lot of people mentioned that last few years they had not got a lot of snow. It was very cold on the top, almost -18 degrees Celcius with wind chill. The views from the runs were amazing - both of the lake below, as well as all the hills around. All the trees were covered with snow, it was like the white christmas trees we all used to draw on our christmas cards. Lot of times while skiing, I would stop and just admire the view.

You can go up the runs by taking the main gondola from the Heavenly village. One the way up, there is a viewpoint where you can get a birds eye view of the lake. Apparently the ticket till the view point and back costs $65, while the all day ski pass costs about $135 a day. And there are many other lifts going up to other points, the highest of which was about 10k feet high. The food on the top is very expensive, so I would suggest you eat in the village before you go up. We also saw loads of Indians on the top of the gondola, who were not skiing, just clicking photos and leaving back via the gondola:).

Snow covered trees
There are a couple of villages that you can ski down to. So you dont always have to take the gondola down to the Heavenly Village. But it is the biggest of the lot with lots of restaurants around.

We took a package on the first day which was quite reasonable. It costs $175 per day and includes day lift ticket, one 2.5 hour class and ski rental for the day. While if you try to get only a class, it costs about $115 for one day. The service at the Heavenly ski rentals was below par though - they have so many different processes, it took us about 1.5 hours to get our ski rentals!

I have been to Lake Tahoe once before in the summer, it was so different and beautiful then. The lake was blue and the weather warm. Its nice (and rare) to have such a place so closeby which offers both hiking and water activities in summer, and then skiing in winter. Lake Tahoe is definitely a plus for the Bay Area

We ate lunch at Kalani's and dinner at Pizza base camp on day one, and dinner at Fire and Ice on the second day, all in Heavenly village. All were decent places and the food tasted amazing after a long day of skiing. And while coming back to San Jose, we ate Indian dinner in Sacramento at Bombay bar and grill - that was definitely amazing.


Carmel high street
We drove to Carmel one day when we were shopping in Gilroy and the weather changed from rain to sun:). Its a nice little seaside town to the South of the Bay Area and has a very European feel to it. We spent a nice afternoon there browsing through some of its (expensive) shops and boutiques, and had a quick lunch at Mediterranean. Then we took a walk next to the sea in the setting sun. It would be very pretty in the summer when its warm. Now though, it was tough to stay out for long. Of course you can never go into the sea as its always cold water (apparently even in summers)!

Carmel beach


Sausalito beachfront
Sausalito is another little seaside resort town north of San Francisco, where we went on the 31st of December. It has a similar European feel like Carmel, with lots of boutiques and galleries and beachfront houses next to the sea. We ate at a small little Italian place and then just walked around checking out all the painting galleries. There was one by Daniel Merriam which was quite interesting and I loved this painting. Too expensive to buy it though!

United Airlines

I flew United Airways to and from SF and I must say they are one of the worst airlines I have flown. The seat did not recline, the food was barely filling or edible, and the blanket or better still, piece of cloth they gave was like something donated for earthquake victims which they passed on to the customers!! They have automated check-in kiosks which dont work most of the time, and then limited staff to deal with the passengers for whom it doesn't. So lots of things to complain about. The only thing that made up for it was the friendly and talkative flight staff, but without them it was a terrible experience.

Overall I loved the trip and look forward to working there sometime. Lets see...

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