Monday, November 27, 2006

Buenvenidos a Miami!

... well, that's how the words of Will Smith's song go! And I almost half expected to see such a banner hung across the I-95 South when it entered Miami.
So what's the story?

The occasion, Thanksgiving weekend, that allowed us a 4 day break from the insane work life (bah! enough of it...)
The target: to hit 3 cities in 4 days.

So we started off on Wednesday night with a brand new Sony Cybershot H2 (12x optical, 6MPixels, 1GB memory card... in short worth the whole nine yards of splurging $370 for this baby).
The customary dinner at IHOP was finished in record time as usual, ( recommend the Herb Roasted Chicken over here... really good!) and we were off in the 7 seater Dodge Caravan to enjoy the trip which, by many, had been termed as an unacceptable trail of debauchery at the wrong time.

Almost as an omen, the 'Check engine' (the master alarm on these cars) came on just after the first gas stop. This would bug us till we hit Orlando, but that didn't come in way of our spirits from being pretty high.

This being my first outing with the H2, I was still fiddling with the controls as we zoomed out of downtown Atlanta on the I-75 South.
New learning 01: I:=Interstate, South indicating the direction it travels. (It's parallel road for the reverse traffic is I-75 North)
New learning 02: Clicking photos from a fast moving car is same as clicking sports-meet photos. Fast shutter and faster ISO does the trick!

Day 1:

A long snooze... to a bright and beautiful morning! The sunrise was simply fantastic with fog blanketing the land on both sides of the highway. There is a scientific study which says that when people encounter fog while driving, they tend to overspeed. Much like the second omen, we actually got the flashing blue lights behind us. A state trooper pulled us over for going at 90mph when the posted limit was just 70. The fine morning turned into a finer fine worth $180, but we pressed on.

Destination: Epcot, Orlando

Walt Disney has turned the city of Orlando into the Disney World entertainment center with many Theme parks over its landscape. We chose Epcot since some had already seen the other places and since we also had to make it to Miami before 9pm. The theme park is definitely a 'not recommended' one since it isn't that much fun. The Spaceship Earth ride is ok but the wait to get there is not. It is all put into the big silver sphere that is visible at the entrance of the park.

The next ride that we were interested in was Soarin'. This ride is worth the wait or you could dish out some extra $$$s for the Fast-pass. The idea is wonderful. This is a 4-D experience of a different kind (2-d screen, wind and rise-fall effects, scents of locations)

It feels as if you are soaring through the sky like a bird and diving close to orange orchards (and it smells as if you are there) to following canoes on a river into the Grand Canyon and a brief sequence over the ocean. Try to get the first row entries. It works better. And to top it off, while you wait you are treated to a nice geo-quiz and some really exotic scenery.

The next was a tour around a huge lake lined with themes based on different countries.

The empty stomach and long queues at the initial joints drove us forward and we skipped most countries. While the birds on the lake distracted me, I missed the opportunity to capture some really nice belles, which didn't miss the discerning eye of Rajesh PR.

The characters of Cinderella, Jasmine, Snow White and Beauty (from the Beauty and the Beast story) were... in one word... fairy-tale like.

The belle is simply too pretty!!!

Little did I know that the next picture would earn me the epithet of 'National Geographic' for the rest of the trip. Ok... the picture is not so great, the settings are off and have zoomed in too close, but then it seemed a good one on the small LCD of the camera.

We went over to the Enterprise's Airport branch to get a replacement for the Dodge Caravan since it still showed the 'Check Engine' light. The replacement car was a smaller Buick Lacrosse, which we were to drive for the rest of the trip. The drive to Miami's Golden Glade Conference center was rather uneventful except for the few go-arounds required to locate the hotel at the very end. Next day was to start early since the 150+ mile drive to Key West had to be completed before 9:30 am.

Day 2:

Destination: Key West (the western-most of the Florida Keys, a group of islands connected by an oceanic highway)

Started off at around 5 am with some initial mix-up between the driver and the navigator (me) one relying on GoogleMaps and other relying on MapQuest

New learning 03: Navigator and driver should use same map and discuss it once before the driver puts the key to the ignition.

Problem sorted we were off onto US-1 passing 'Alligator Crossings' on the way. Another thing that we got to see was the bridge used for shooting the sequence on 'True Lies'

At Key West we had booked a tour on a party boat from Sunset Tours that included a range of water sports. There was obvious apprehension from my end since I don't know how to swim (and the warnings from Home ministry... read parents... said, "Don't get into the water!")

Once the twin-hulled boat was anchored in the 8 feet deep water, the first thing was to put on the bright red life-jacket which would not come off till then end of the trip. Second was to try out the water. There came the first learning related to the sea.

New learning 04: Ian Thorpe makes swimming look too easy... it is NOT! Without the life jacket the human body sinks like a stone and the life jacket makes you bob like a cork. Mix them together and you see yourself sinking down 2-3 feet and a good 2-3 seconds before you pop-up!

I learned this rather nastily. I slid into the water off the ramp and next moment I was 2 feet under water. The first thought was, "WRONG JACKET!!!" that I was too heavy for it and am gonna sink! All air expelled from the lungs and I made a rather ungraceful flounder back to surface gulping seawater and making some rather funny sounds much to the amusement of others...

The jet-skis were a good 100m away and it was required that you swim to them. So it was totally out of question. I did try out the banana-boat. The double sausage shaped rubber dinghy gets dragged around in crazy circles by a motorboat, bouncing off the wake of the motorboat. The possibility of falling off into the sea made sure that I clung to the saddle for dear life!

New learning 05: To hang on without falling off, watch the way the boat turns. Lean the same way and you will enjoy the ride without being thrown into the sea or worse, land ungracefully on the face.

Then some kayaking fun and we did our first rescue operations too... Some intrepid souls not understanding their own limitations, ventured too far out and then couldn't swim back (logically they were the ones who didn't know how to swim, else they wouldn't have made the mistake)

So the kayak-team went up to the rescue. There was not so much of applause when we were back with the people hanging by the side of the kayak...

New learning 06: If you don't know how to swim, don't try a rescue... If the person being rescued had panicked and capsized the kayak, there would be 3 people in need of rescue instead of 1!

Well... all those years of watching Baywatch counted and we walked, I mean, paddled away without such an incident.

Last thing done was parasailing. Suspended from a parachute 350 ft up in the air is real fun and the view of Key West was simply wonderful. Don't forget to take the camera up there and remember to tell the operator to limit the obligatory dip in the water to below the waist only.

The dolphins made a brief appearance and being very camera-shy, we couldn't capture their photos for posterity.

Day drawing to a close, we returned towards Miami fully tired and tanned well. Ok, I accept, as a blemish on Indian skins, I got slightly sun-burned. This was unexpected since we do spend whole days in the sun on the terrace during Uttarayan (14th Jan) without such effects.

Check out the 'Evil look' I tried out in the hotel mirror. The sunburn is very well apparent too :(

Next day was surely a long way off and we were not going to get up any time early. So the plan to freak out at the Miami casinos and clubs was simply nixed.

We were hungry for sure and the group wanted to have some Indian food. So we traced down an Indian restaurant called 'Royal Indian' on the Griffin Road (West) which is on an exit after Exit 14 on I-95 North when coming from Key West. The restaurant closed for dinner at 10:30 pm and we walked into it at 10:27 pm. Unbelievably, the staff was very courteous and still offered to serve us. The food was simply delicious. Chicken Vindaloo (Hot) is a definite recommendation for people with taste for hot non-veggie food. So was the Shrimp curry. Low on cost and great on taste, this restaurant is a definite don't-miss if you are in Miami and want to taste some great Indian cuisine.

Day 3:

Destination: Everglades (Alligator country)

Another mix-up trying to get to this place and we reached here around afternoon. The ride on the airboat was preceded by a rather long wait. Pays to book in advance and explore options in advance. Else you'd find yourself stuck in a line waiting while blue/pink/green-stickered people (with advance booking) get through faster.

The boat ride is somewhat fun. While captained by a self-proclaimed 'Worst Airboat Captain' we had a rather dry run. We only saw 2 alligators and 3 birds (egrets). Logically if I were a bird/alligator, I'd too stay away from the path of this rather noisy apparition called the airboat.

The show by the alligator-man was rather amusing and one of the best shots of the trip coming when we captured him put his hand right in the mouth of the alligator. Well, as expected, he got it out safe and in one piece.

Another nice photo was clicked after exiting the park on a small lake by the side. Everglades was relatively fun but not too much fun too. Starting off from there we headed back to search for the famed South Beach of Miami.

Destination: South Beach (Miami)
The strange stares that I had gotten from people when I had said that we were going to South Beach (and Haulover beach) was quickly understood the moment we stepped onto the beach. The sign told it all!

But trust me! All the so-called images that you can conjecture up from this sign are far from reality. If I had gone to this place with a pre-conceived notion of a visual fiesta, I'd have been pretty disappointed. The 4pm timing and the cold conditions given their due credit, we saw a beach that where guys outnumbered their counterparts 50:1. Wishing to avoid a psychological scarring we gave this section a pass...

The Atlantic was pretty in its colored glory and the skyline photo that I got was pretty good given the fading light conditions. The next stop was back to the hotel and in search of another Indian restaurant. I'd have rather tried another cuisine, but then unlike me, others do follow restrictions of vegetarianism, no bacon and no drinks ideologies. That leaves pretty little room for experimentation.

This got us to a place called Madras Cafe. The hostess was pretty friendly and was cracking jokes all the time. But this didn't make up for the quality or quantity of food we got. The 'crowning glory' to the preparations was that Veg Chettinad had broccoli in it. The non-veg preparations were not that good at all. The only good things over there were the Mango lassi and the Kulfi that came as dessert. Though rated as a great restaurant by 'Zagat survey' (I am not sure that is) I'd give it a definite thumbs-down. Not recommended at all...

Day 4:

Destination: Atlanta (The trip was over and the ominous work was overshadowing the mood)

Our definite intention was to visit the infamous Haulover beach for sure before leaving for Atlanta. So after checkout from the hotel we took to I-95 South and then 395 East. Parking for the car was a proper pain and we finally found an alley where it could be done.

In between the drive to the parking space, had my first real close-up encounter of a limousine. The beach was pretty empty and after a brief presence over there, we headed back in search of some eating joint.

This time we went to Burger King. Right in it's parking lot we encountered the second limousine, this time a white one. One Whooper and a Hershey Pie later we were outside the eatery again. This time we were surprised by another limo. This I guess should be called a Hummerzine because unlike the normal limos that are stretched Lincolns, this was a Hummer. Obviously all posed one by one in front of it for photos.

Whoever the owner was, (and we'd never know him) certainly was a self-indulgent individual. A limousine, and that too a Hummer-based one, indicated rather opulent taste.

This photo session officially concluded our trip and we were on our long drive back home.

The traffic was atrociously slow at times and insanely fast the next moment. We got to see 6 multiple-car accidents on the way back and this dampened the spirits a bit.

The last stop we took for the semi-dinner was at a Waffle House joint. Waiting to take the left turn we encountered a guy standing at the road with a board in hand, "Homeless. Willing to do any kind of work for money". I don't know how many of us noticed him, but the wretched feeling on his face was really saddening. Over the four days we had been treated to images of opulence, grandeur and beauty all our way. This one image completed the whole picture. America, the land of everything...

The depressing thoughts of getting back to work were all the more compounded with the series of 'beautiful' mails in my mailbox the next morning. But I stand ever hopeful that I'll get to see something good again soon enough. With that in my mind, I look out of the office-windwo just like the Garfield in the car at Waffle House.