US tour with family

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It had been months since I started working on an Excel sheet, going over and repeatedly making changes in the itinerary for the upcoming tour. It was special as my parents were coming to US to attend my graduation ceremony, and I wanted to give them the best experience possible. Their stay was limited to 15 days and that is why I had to hand pick the locations which also involved less of foot travel. I was quite skeptical while making reservations as it was completely self-planned and involved expensive trips. I just hoped everything to be fine and was ready to meet parents after 9 months.

JFK to Ithaca:

There was a plethora of emotions running in my head: I would be soon leaving Ithaca, where I had spent the best 9 months of my life yet; I would proudly be showing around my campus to my parents; and I would be graduating with a Master’s degree from an Ivy league University! My parents boarded Emirates from BIAL, Bangalore on May 21st. The flight was scheduled to arrive at JFK, New York in the early hours of May 22nd.

Having a car for travelling in US is not a luxury but a necessity. I had been polishing my driving skills for 2 months before the arrival of my parents arrival and rented a Chevrolet Cruise for 5 days to move in and around Ithaca with them. I had been to Six flags Adventure Park at Jackson with my friends the previous day and had camped near New York for the night. Driving was never my strong point until then, I had decided to change that during this tour. What better way to go about it than driving in New York, which is considered as one of the trickiest place to drive in US! I chose to drive only on the freeways and trusted the GPS to choose the best routes. The roads started getting busy as I closed in to New York and numerous intersections and exits only added to the frenzy. There was an accident near an exit and I had to almost wait for more than 30 mins to clear the ramp. Although the cars wouldn’t be bumper to bumper, the speed at which others changed the lanes and took the exits alarmed my mind to drive extra carefully.

Fortunately I reached the airport without any problems other than the fact that was I late by 15 mins. I had surmised that parents would take a long time at the immigration counter, but they were out at the terminal 4 exit lobby in a short time. By then, a fellow Indian passenger had already offered them stay at their place until I reached. My parents chose to wait instead. Apparently immigration officer was quite surprised to know that my parents had very few compact luggage even though my parents were seeing me after 9 months and that too for graduation. I received them with a smile and it was a nice feeling to have them since I had numerous things to show them. My friend Lisha’s parents also landed after some time and after adjusting the luggage in the two cars we set to Ithaca. Dad was amused to know about the freeways and exits. It was around 5.30 PM by the time we reached Ithaca. Owing to almost one day of journey including 16+ hours in the flight, my parents slept for 12 hours straight after reaching home without even having dinner.

Day 1 (May 23rd) – CS Dept Ceremony and Taughannock falls:

Cornell University gave me a lot more than what I asked for and my experiences in that place surely deserve a separate post, which I intend to write soon. May 23rd-24th were the graduation dates. Cornell stood as humbly as ever hosting students and parents for 150 years. Yes, it was Cornell’s sesquicentennial year and my course overlapped exactly on this 150th year. Almost every department holds its own graduation ceremony and Computer Science department had it on May 23rd. After shopping at Wegmans in the morning we went the Engineering Quad in the campus to attend the ceremony. Dad wore a cream blazer, mom a Saree and I, the graduation gown. We looked splendid together.

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The ceremony included lauding some star performers and then calling everyone to stage with a red rose in the hand. It was really awesome to walk on the stage where our professors sat. Our director shook hands for a photo. We then started with our photo sessions with the professors and friends. Since my parents would stay only for 3 days at Ithaca, I was pressed for time to show them around. Soon after the ceremony, we left to Taughannock falls, which is around 20 mins drive from Ithaca. The falls is situated at a distance from Cayuga lake where the waters finally flow into and the route till the falls is very unique. The water flows in not so narrow flat valley with depth not more than the adult’s knee. The stone surface is slippery and it was nice to see dad and mom holding each other’s hand while walking through it.

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The fall itself is no less special. It looks as though it is perfectly set in middle of the cliff with a slight dip at the place where the falls started. It’s the highest in New York state and just looks magnificent in all its glory. I was overwhelmed when I saw it for the first time 9 months back, and felt exactly the same way this time as well. I went close to the foot of the falls where water sprinkled over me. After admiring its never ending beauty, we walked back to the park near the Cayuga lake. While walking back reminiscing about my life at Cornell and seeing my parents, I felt that I was having the most peaceful time of my life. Cayuga lake looked beautiful too from the park and we saw few people launching their boats from the ramp in the water. We then headed back to roam around the campus. I took them to Libe slope. A golden evening Sun coupled with perfect weather and a green slope added beauty to this place. Cornell tower in the back and old stone buildings in the front with Cayuga lake and hills in the backdrop made this place look all the more heavenly. Lisha had invited us over for dinner. After spending some quality time at her house we retired for sleep.

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Day 2 (May 24th) – Graduation Ceremony and Niagara: 

The big day was finally here. All the graduating students, irrespective of departments would be conferred the degree in the Schoellkopf stadium. I dropped my parents at the stands in the stadium and went to Arts Quad. We had a procession from the Arts Quad to the stadium. The staff had lined to congratulate us. Walking around the campus always brought a smile on my face and this was a special walk altogether. We reached stadium and I realized its massiveness only then. Colorful family and relatives took the stands. Around 7000+ chairs had been laid out for the graduating students in the field. It felt fantastic to be there among graduating friends who never stopped clicking pics till the event started. The event started and President Skorton started conferring degrees to one field after other. We all cheered when it was our turn and then proudly sang the Cornell anthem “Far Above the Cayuga’s Waters”. We then went to Gates Hall for another photo session in our suits and dresses. Here is a brief video of the commencement ceremony.

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It was like my parents graduated too. I am so grateful for all their sacrifices, support, love and belief.

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Although Niagara falls is not far (3 hours drive), I hadn’t visited it. I saved it for parents visit instead. We left for Niagara in the late afternoon and stayed at an Airbnb apartment.  It was my first Airbnb experience and it was fantastic. It was quite tricky getting the keys and getting into the apartment. The apartment was close to the park and I never took the car out of the parking lot during the stay. Shubhangi, my classmate, accompanied us to Niagara. We went to see the fireworks and illuminations at night and it was surprising to see that 90%+ visitors there were Indians. The falls were lit with multicolored flash lights and the fireworks only added to the beauty.

Day 3 (May 25th) – Niagara falls and Watkins Glen park:

It was only in the daylight where we enjoyed the real beauty of the falls. There are 2 main waterfalls, the larger one being Horseshoe Falls and the smaller one being the American Falls. We felt that the view would be better from the Canadian side. Nonetheless we took the Maid of the Mist ride. The boat crossing the American falls took us to the middle of Horseshoe falls. It was amazing to see millions of cubic feet of water flowing through the falls. The falls looked a bit greenish owing to the underlying green stones. Getting battered by the water drops was a splendid feeling. The blue raincoat tried all it could to stop us from getting completely drenched. After the ride we took the stairs which go very close to the American falls. The rainbows there felt simply unreal. It felt like the short half looped rainbows followed us and we could almost touch it. We then took the shuttle and went over the bridge to reach the Terrapin point which overlooked Horseshoe falls from up close. I played around with the seagulls and my GoPro there before heading for lunch. We then packed up, left Niagara and reached a place called Watkins Glen National park.

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This was unplanned. The previous day, while going to Niagara I saw that Watkins Glen park was almost en route and since I had heard that this was one of the beautiful gorges around Ithaca, I chose to visit it. I was not wrong, the trails which ran in the gorges treated us to a variety of experiences. The water flowed in a narrow stream between the filed stones lining it and at some places the water from the above the hills came in as tiny falls beside the trail.

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We had started from the rear entrance to the park and it was a downhill to the main entrance. I let my parents walk downhill till the main entrance and Shubhangi and I retraced the trail to pick the car at rear entrance. Apparently the trail which my parents took was more beautiful and I am glad they took it as I could always visit it again. After picking my parents at the main entrance we left for Ithaca. With around 1000 miles of safe driving, I finally bid goodbye to Chevy Cruze. I was more confident than ever with driving. I was moving out of Ithaca the next day, so parents helped me pack everything that night.

Day 4 (May 26th) – Ithaca to Phoenix:

We spent the day travelling. I bid a goodbye to Cornell and Ithaca with a heavy heart and took a bus to port terminal, New York.  We took a shuttle to JFK and after cutting close, we boarded a Jet Blue flight to Phoenix, where my aunt stays. She was very excited to welcome us. Her home was in a affluent location and very spacious. It looked like the palm islands of Dubai. It was quite late in the night, so we had dinner, spoke a bit and went to bed.

Day 5 (May 27th) – Las Vegas:

I had a fair idea of what to expect about the trip until now, but the trip from now on was kinda more or less unknown. I had spent quite a bit on bookings for this stretch of the trip and was eagerly looking forward to it. We left for Vegas in the morning. Well, not actually Las Vegas – the strip where most of the casinos are present are in a town called Paradise, south of Vegas. Apparently it was separated from the city to avoid taxes. At the McCarran International Airport I spent quite a time fiddling with the Uber app in my phone only to realize that Uber wasn’t operating there. Only then I knew that Uber wasn’t as ubiquitous as I had thought it to be. We took a taxi and reached the the S Las Vegas Blvd to discover the jazzy world. I had booked a 2 night stay at Bellagio. I always pictured Bellagio and fountains when I thought about Vegas and this time I didn’t want to compromise anything on luxury and beauty that I intended my parents to experience.  Right from the entrance till the South Tower (where our rooms were) the hotel had variety of attractions such as statues, fountains (water and chocolate), a floral glass ceiling, colorful casino, indoor botanical garden, etc. I had booked a fountain view room and it didn’t disappoint us. The room had a fantastic view of the fountains and  S Las Vegas Blvd. Eiffel tower and few other attractions looked amazing.

I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned while experiencing the hotel. I thus went to the pool as well. In the evening we went to the Cirque Du Soleil – Ka show at the MGM Grand. The auditorium hosting this was one of a kind with reddish black color and various structures. The acrobatic acts in the show were okay-ish compared to the acts I had seen in circuses in India as a child. However, the way they had combined engineering with art was something interesting and unique. We retired to bed to wake early for a long happening day.

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Day 6 (May 28th) – Grand Canyon and Hotel hopping:

I had opted for Grand Canyon Connoisseur expedition by Scenic Tours for the Grand Canyon trip. It included a shuttle pick up from hotel to airport nearby, a flight to the south rim of Grand Canyon, a helicopter ride over the Dragon Corridor, a short visit to a Bright Angel Point and a flight back to Vegas. We started around in 4 in the morning and witnessed a beautiful sunrise en-route. it was quite a while before we left the airport in a 12 seat CESSNA flight. I was more than amused to be on this flight (My friends at Deloitte found it amusing too). The ride was spectacular. Each one of us had a headphone which provided a guided audio tour. We flew close by Hoover dam and the stats regarding its construction really astonished me. It was quite a sight to see the blue Colorado river amidst the desert. As we flew more west, we started seeing the canyon and the experience was one of a kind. We could see the Colorado river deep in the canyon, green canopy of trees on the flat top and various shades of orange on the edges. Enjoying this beauty we reached the Scenic Tours base near the South rim. We excitedly waited for our turn for the Heli-ride. When finally we got our chance, mom was made to sit in the co-pilot seat. A couple, dad and I sat in the back. We slowly made way to the nearby Dragon Corridor and were taken aback by the views once we were above the canyon. Though the helicopter didn’t fly across the canyon, it flew close enough to it, which allowed us to clearly see the layers of different colors.

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The helicopter ride lasted around 20 minutes, after which we went back to the base. From there we went to the Bright Angel point in a bus. Though we were looking at the canyon all the way, the view point didn’t disappoint us. The lunch here reminds me of a funny incident. As soon as I opened my lunch box, a squirrel stealthily came and stole a piece of bread. The sight was cute and funny at the same time. It was interesting to see that the faraway natural formation was compared to Lord Brahma’s head, the Shivalinga, etc. After some time we headed back to bus and then to the base. The flight back to Vegas was one of the most entertaining rides, for I was made to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. To make it more interesting, this too was a CESSNA flight. The pilot was a lady. I had an amazing time sitting there enjoying the view and playing with my GoPro. I tried understanding the display and controls. The pilot occasionally looked into physical maps and checklists as though she was unsure of what she was doing. The ride was slightly bumpy. All this added to the excitement in the co-pilot’s seat. We reached Vegas before evening and roamed the boulevard. I realized that the hotels themselves were the main attractions in Vegas: the Roman architecture of Ceasar’s palace, the Venetian atmosphere with Gondolas at The Venetian, bird’s eye view from Stratosphere tower, fire show at Mirage and the Pyramid shaped Luxor hotel to name a few. We rushed to the Bellagio buffet for dinner. Although this was the biggest dinner spread I had ever seen, it was also the least amount of food I had had at a buffet! There weren’t many things I could savor. I went out and enjoyed the musical fountains at night. It was a beautiful sight with waters scaling heights with Bellagio as the background.

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Day 7 (May 29th) – Shopping and Phoenix:

We went to the premium outlets for shopping and mom and dad bought quite a few clothes. We headed back to Phoenix by the evening. After tasting Yogurt ice cream and visiting IKEA, we went to my aunt’s home. I felt quite relieved as I delegated the job of touring to my aunt for the next 2 days.

Day 8 (May 30th) – University of Arizona and Biosphere:

Aunt’s daughter was starting her summer internship at UofA and we all went to drop her. After setting her room up went to a place called Biosphere 2. The name itself was interesting. It was named Biosphere 2 as they considered Earth’s own biosphere to be 1st one. B2 is the largest laboratory for global Ecology ever built. They have controlled environments to sustain rainforest, mangrove forest, desert, sea life, etc right in the middle of Arizona desert. We had a guided tour going through all the above mentioned environments and we added a bulk of knowledge and facts to our brains. It was quite astounding to know that few scientists were part of the closed mission which lasted from September 26, 1991 to September 26, 1993. They grew their own food and let the infrastructure of B2 to simulate Earth’s environments and changing weather. After an brain-stimulating experience we headed back to Phoenix and after few evening snacks went back to home.

Day 9 (May 31st) – Sedona: 

We hadn’t done completely with canyons yet. My uncle and aunt took us to a place called Sedona. It’s a beautiful town which is famous for handicrafts and red canyon like mountains surrounding it. It was mesmerizing when we first saw from the car near Sedona. Before the jeep tour we went shopping and it was very nice to see mom acting like a kid. She was amused at the plethora of handicrafts at display and it was very difficult to skip shops without visiting. Wooden toys, hand made bags and design candles were few among many. After buying few things we started with the jeep tour. The driver/guide was quite funny and it was fun having him explain the geography and history around the place. During the journey, he would ask the hikers if they needed water which I thought was very generous. Since most of Arizona is desert and Sun was shining bright in the summer, people usually wished “Stay Hydrated” to each other. After some distance of tar road we hit the mud road and it was here the jeep ride was most enjoyable. We went close to the mountains on the tortuous path bouncing around in the jeep. I really enjoyed the ride and natural beauty in this place. Fortunately we ended the tour before we displaced our internal organs. We left to Phoenix after a late lunch at an Indian restaurant. On the way we saw plenty of huge cacti, a few of which were almost 2 – 3 times my height.

Jeep all

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Day 10 (June 1)  – Long Island, NY and a pleasant surprise:

I am really grateful to my aunt and uncle for hosting and talking us to places around Phoenix. Not only we had homely experience, it was also nice to travel with extended family. We left Phoenix in the morning and reached JFK by late afternoon. Sridhar uncle, a relative whom we had never met picked us up and took us to his home in Long Island. My dad had met aunt decades ago but for mom and me, it was the first time we had met the couple. I mention this because we just loved the way they hosted us. Their home was quietly nestled near the woods and was very spacious. After the dinner they surprised even more by celebrating my graduation with a cake. I felt so really loved. We went to bed with a smile experiencing the lovely hospitality.

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Day 11 (June 2)  – New York Cruise:

Surya, a newfound friend of mine, joined us for the 1st day of New York trip. We picked her up from the hotel near JFK and went to the Airbnb apartment in the upper Manhattan. I had gotten a very good deal but I was slightly apprehensive about the safety of the area. Fortunately it was safe enough and we had a pleasant stay for 2 nights. The procedure to get the keys for the apartment are quite interesting in such bookings. Surya and mom were wondering what I was doing near the fence when I ducked to get the keys from a combination box. Mom and Dad went to Madam Tussauds Wax Museum and Surya and I collected a piece of luggage I had left in Ithaca from my friend, at Port Authority. Later in the evening we went to Circle Line Harbor’s Sunset Cruise. It was rainy day and the Sun wasn’t out in the evening which was a bit disappointing. The cruise started at western Manhattan and went along Manhattan’s shore to the south, near statue of Liberty, and then to the eastern side under Brooklyn bridge. It was just about to get dark and lights on the high buildings in Lower Manhattan were nice to look at. The cruise traced the route back to the starting point and we went to the apartment after alighting. Coincidentally, Surya and I both like my favorite Batate palle (Alu bhaji) with rice. So we all kinda prepared dinner together and I had my mom made favorite dish after a long time in New York.

Day 12 (June 3)  – New York, World Trade Center:

World Trade Center had been opened for public just few days ago. It being the highest building in US and situated in lower Manhattan made the visit irresistible. We were on the 9 AM schedule and thankfully it wasn’t rainy or cloudy. We got into the building and explored the attractions starting from the lower floors. Digital displays and construction facts were some of the things we saw before we got into the amazing elevator. Digital displays are mounted on the walls of the elevator and as the elevator moves up, displays show the time lapse video of Manhattan island from 15th AD to 2015. It’s a brilliant and innovative idea to attract the visitors and show about the history of Manhattan at the same time. On reaching the top at the observation deck, there was some show and then they opened the curtains to public which provided a bird’s eye view of Manhattan and surroundings. Then gave an iPad(for a fee) which acted as augmented reality device with information on the nearby infrastructures. It was my dad’s time to be a kid here. He was totally immersed into the iPad and surroundings trying to soak as much as information possible.

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We could take a complete circle and see the Manhattan and its surroundings and the fact that it was sunny and bright helped get a clear view. Surya had a flight in the afternoon, so I went her to drop at JFK while parents visited American Museum of Natural History. Dad really enjoyed it. We then took metro and walked along the central park to reach glass Apple store. Even though it was evening we decided to go back to apartment and rest.

(June 4,5,6)  – Back to Hubli, India:

The flight to India was not that comfortable like the one I had while coming to US. I watched some 6 movies and hardly slept. The food was great in Emirates as usual. We reached India in the night of June 5 and left to Hubli early next morning. Actually I hadn’t set the mobile time to IST, it was still in Dubai time. So as soon as it was 6 AM in my mobile, (3 AM IST) I woke my parents to start for Hubli. Mom had already started getting ready but dad checked the time and we went back to sleep again 😀 On the way, we had Tatte Idli, Masala Dosa and Vada at Pavithra hotel, Kyatasandra. I was waiting to relish Indian food. In the next few weeks, I would just go around Hubli and Bangalore and have street food. I still had one last job in the trip – to drive parents back to Hubli safely. We reached Hubli in the afternoon and I was glad I was back in home.

Though everything went fine, there few simple things I missed. After initial days, I started behaving a little roughly with my parents which at certain times dampened the spirit of the trip. Nonetheless, this tour will always surely be in the list of most important tours in my life.  My parents attended my graduation ceremony at the beautiful Cornell University, I turned into a confident driver, I self-organized the US tour for my family and experienced amazing things. I thought that the first stage of my life kinda ended which included childhood, education, failures, start of the career, adventures and realizing most of my initial set of big dreams. Graduation and this tour marked a fantastic end and I am ready for the next stage of my adventurous life.

Nikhil Navali

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Categories: Cornell, Family, Ithaca, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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