I Graduated!

It feels like yesterday that I was packing my bags and leaving Chennai to begin my journey in the United States of America. I was looking forward to two years of an enriching experience in an American university, however I could never have predicted that a pandemic would happen and effectively alter my dreams and expectations I had about my time in the United States.

This isn’t a post describing how my life was affected by the pandemic. I’ll save that for a separate post. Rather, it’s a short description of my four semesters of my Master’s degree, three of them fully online. All this, while I still struggle to come to terms with the fact that I have graduated. Time seems to have flown by so fast!

Fall 2019

I guess I’d described my initial days in the US in my previous blog posts. I had plans of making a separate post to talk about my first day at Northeastern University, but grad school was just too hectic for me to find the time to get back to blogging.

Without giving away too much, I was all excited for the first day of grad school. Seeing a classroom of mostly Indian students made me feel connected to my home country. Even the professor who was teaching us that day was Indian! That was the point when it felt like I was in India all along.

As the days went by, the honeymoon period of my MS journey quickly got over, and in the next month, I was faced with multiple complex projects with short deadlines. There were many a times when anxiety got the better of me (and I also realised that I am susceptible to anxiety attacks), but the support and collaboration I got from my peers, who were in the same situation as I was, combined with the support of my family and friends back home, helped me pull through.

Finals Week approached, and my two exams were unfortunately scheduled back-to-back, which meant I had to be smart with my preparation and time management. It was a unique experience giving a paper-pen final exam without the added logistics that come with writing an end semester exam in Indian universities. Writing the final exam felt just like writing a midterm paper or a simple class test. We came to the classroom at the specified time, we were given our question papers, and we completed the test within (or even before) the deadline. I remember being all excited for my Data Networking final exam, as my flight back to Muscat was in the following two days, which would become the longest journey I have ever travelled on my own.

Spring 2020

I returned back to the United States just in time for the start of my second semester. One memory that particularly stands out was when the news of the passing of Oman’s great leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said was declared, in the early hours of January 11, 2020. It was 7:30pm, January 10, 2020 in Boston, when the news broke out across all social media. I was in class, and when a break was announced, that’s when I came to know of the Sultan’s passing. I was too numb and paranoid to concentrate on the rest of the class, and I called home as soon as the class was dismissed for the day. Thankfully, a smooth transition of power ensued in the country.

I would say February 2020 was the most stressful month of my entire journey at Northeastern, for we had much more complex projects to deal with, along with limited time. I still don’t know how I managed to get through this month, and there were a couple of instances where I had just simply given up, because it was getting too stressful for me. I am not proud of what I did back then, though at that time it seemed like the right thing to do. A saving grace was the trips I made to my relative’s home every weekend, which was a short train journey for an hour. I guess these little trips helped me maintain my sanity, and was a way to prepare myself for what would come next.

March 2020 was chaotic. The pandemic had just begun to take hold of Boston, and by the second week of March, my university shut down its campus completely, for what would be a more than 6 month complete shutdown. Suddenly I found myself without access to the university library, where I usually spent my nights catching up on my homework and studies. I also lost access to the dining area, where I usually buy one of my meals almost every day. My Northeastern University experience as I remembered it, had come to a screeching halt, and I would eventually graduate just a month before the university finally deemed it safe to remove most of the restrictions.

This was the month where I had to spend almost all my time at home. For an introvert like me, who never compromised on his peace and quiet, I found it especially hard to adjust to staying at home for an extended period of time. In the span of a month, I went from sitting in the classroom to sitting on my bed to attend online classes. I must give due credit to the university in quicky adapting to the online mode of teaching. The only good thing that came out of this period was that I learnt cooking, and looking back, it is doubtful whether I would have learned cooking, had the pandemic not happened.

By April 2020, we had gotten used to the new normal. One of my final exams was a take-home exam, while the other was a real-time online exam that was open-book, open-notes. Taking a take-home exam and an online exam for the final were again very new to me, but it was an interesting experience!

Summer 2020

While some of my peers took summer courses, I decided it was time to give myself a break, especially due to the stressful prior semester and the unravelling of the pandemic. I utilized this time to catch up on some interesting courses on Coursera, while simultaneously working on my cooking skills. I stayed indoors for most of the time, while meeting my relatives once a month. And before I knew it, the four summer months were over.

Fall 2020

Before the start of the Fall 2020 semester, my university announced that they would be transitioning to a unique mode of education: the hybrid model. In this, the students and the faculty had the option to choose between in-person attendance and remote attendance. This provided students the opportunity to attend classes in person if they wished, or to attend them from the comfort of their home. Eagerly looking forward to getting back to the classroom, I began my third semester. However, both my professors chose to be teaching remotely for the semester, therefore, I did not get an opportunity to attend classes in-person.

September 2020 was fun. I was looking forward to both courses, since both of them looked interesting on paper (spoiler alert: they were!). This was also the time when the search for internships and co-ops picked up, since the situation was slowly improving and the job market was recovering. Unfortunately, there were fewer positions open for Spring 2021 semester, so competition was high again.

By October 2020, I got the true expereince of what the semester was going to be like. The assignments kept coming one after the other, with little room to breathe. The only saving grace was that the coursework was much easier to understand and comprehend, and also the fact that the new friends that I made through these two courses were there to help me out when I needed help.

November 2020 meant Midterms. My midterms for both courses were scheduled within a week of each other, adding to the tension. Somehow, everything worked out smoothly, and I did my best in them. I was also getting interviews for potential co-op positions, but I was yet to get a positive response.

December 2020 was my birthday month! It was the first ever birthday I spent away from my family, and Finals Week was coming up as well! Both my exams went smoothly, and it was a bittersweet experience bidding farewell to my professors without having seen them in person. My most memorable “last class” was with the Software-Defined Networking subject, where we had our final exam for one hour, and then it became an informal fun session, where the professor made us all sing a song, compulsorily! As someone who has never sung before, I sang the “Faded” song by Alan Walker. It was a fun session that almost went upto midnight. Following which, it started snowing heavily, and I woke up to snow-covered streets the next day! It was such a beautiful sight and such a beautiful ending to the third semester.

Spring 2021

In the month of January, I made a last-minute decision to visit Muscat for a month. It was the first time I would be meeting my parents, after the whole COVID-19 thing started. I had to miss my flight as I didn’t receive my COVID-19 test results in time. Eventually, I rescheduled my flight for the next day, and sat on the longest flight of my life, a full 13 hours! I almost cried when I saw Dubai’s skyline, it felt good to be back in the neighbourhood! Of course, that feeling only intensified after boarding my connection to Muscat, and seeing the beautiful city in the dead of night (around 3am local time). I stood in the immigration queue for a full 4 and a half hours – I stood in the beginning of the line at 3:45 am, and my turn arrived only at 8:15am! I was looking forward to reaching home by dawn, instead it was 9:30am when I finally reached home.

I attended the first two weeks of the semester online from Muscat, and thus I had to wake up at 3am for one of my classes starting at 6pm New York time. But the comfort of being with family trumped the struggle of staying drowsily awake through the lecture. My other class was at 9am New York time, which was a manageable 6pm Muscat time. Online classes would never have happened if COVID never happened, therefore, this was a whole new experience for me.

February 2021 was when I made peace with the fact that I would not be getting the opportunity to go on a co-op. It was an extremely crushing moment, when I realised that I was the only one in my apartment without an internship. This also meant that I would be graduating in the next three months, something I was not at all prepared for. It was too much for me to absorb at that time, and the thought of going back to Boston and facing my peers who were already on their co-ops, was a scary one. One day before my flight back to Boston, I cried the whole day, apprehensive of what was going to happen in my life. It was a sad trip back to Boston, made interesting only by the fact that my connecting flight from Dubai to Boston got delayed by a full 7 hours, due to inclement weather in the US Northeast. This provided me with the rare opportunity to explore Dubai International Airport in more detail. I bought a Karak Chai from a McDonald’s, and wondered when I’d get the opportunity to drink it again in the Gulf.

Within a week of my arrival in Boston, I was invited to an interview for an on-campus role. It was a super exciting moment for me as I did not have any luck in securing an on-campus job so far, while my peers held multiple on-campus jobs. I ended up becoming an Instructional Assistant, and receiving my first salary in my bank account was such a special moment for me!

March 2021 was when I began my first day as an Instructional Assistant. It took me a week to get fully used to the responsibilities of the role, however it was an enriching and fun experience! I also got the opportunity to visit parts of the Northeastern campus I have never been to before. I also made many new friends through this role! This month was also filled with anxiety, since I was applying for my post-graduation work authorization, and I had to make sure every step was done properly and carefully. Finally, towards the end of the month, me and my friend mailed our applications together from the same post office and it felt great to have company while double- and triple-checking my set of documents.

I was dreading the arrival of April. It would mean my final month at Northeastern University, and also at my on-campus job that I enjoyed doing. Waking up everyday reminded me of my impending graduation. I was just not ready to graduate this early, even though it was going to be almost 2 years since I started on this journey. It felt like yesterday that I had arrived to the United States for the very first time and was writing my blog post describing my first ever flight to the United States. People usually feel happy that they are graduating, however, all I did was cry. I probably was the only person who reacted this way. I did each of my assignments knowing that this would probably be my final days in an academic setting. And before I knew it, it was the final week of April. A couple of interviews kept me busy, but I couldn’t help but think “this is my last day in a classroom environment”. And I couldn’t comprehend how rotten my luck was, to have my last-ever classes completely online. Luckily, I was able to locate the original classroom for the Telecommunications Public Policy course, and planned to attend my final class for that subject by going to the classroom and joining the Zoom meeting from there, with a couple of my friends. As ridiculous as the whole idea may probably sound to you, I couldn’t think of a better way to commemorate my last class for the course.

While this course did not have a final exam, my other course for the semester, Fundamentals of the Internet of Things, did have a final exam. And the day the final exam would be, was the last ever class at Northeastern University for me. Also, it would be the last ever exam for this degree. Needless to say, it was a bittersweet moment, and thankfully, the course was an easy one, which allowed me to actually think and feel about the significance of this exam. Again, I chose to go to the assigned classroom for this course, but the building was locked as it was a Saturday. So I had to make do with another classroom in another building. The exam itself was an easy one, and once I was done, I felt..empty. Not happy, not sad, I was just emotionless. I was done. I was done with my Master’s degree, without going to the classroom for 2 and a half semesters. I can’t believe I was done. I refused to believe it was over. I looked forward to 2 years of experiencing the American college experience, instead all I did was spend my time sitting at home and attending the lectures. Let me tell you, attending lectures online may be fun for sometime, but you do start missing the in-person experience after a while. This was definitely not the Master’s experience I signed up for, and paid so much for. Yes, I know all this was beyond anyone’s control, but I couldn’t help feeling like something was missing.

My exam was on the 1st of May. The following week had a lot of events for graduating students, and I did sign up for “The Last Lecture”, which was an in-person event held at the university auditorium. I had not been here since my orientation right before my first semester at Northeastern, and it seemed only fitting that I visited this place one last time before I officially graduate. This lecture was more of a motivational nature, and it was really good! Another event that I attended was the procession, which involved a procession of all graduates, wearing the graduation cap and gown. Wearing the graduation dress for the first time ever, felt good! But it also reminded me that my journey at Northeastern was over. I also got a chance to get a graduation ceremony-like photograph of me taken, since our diplomas would not get distributed at the actual graduation ceremony (“Commencement”).

The End (Of My Journey)

May 9, 2021 was the Commencement ceremony for Masters’ students. This was held in Fenway Park, Boston’s most well-known sports stadium, which was specifically chosen to accommodate all the people coming while also maintaining social distancing. Well, I was happy, to finally be inside this iconic landmark of the city of Boston! The ceremony itself was short, about 1.5 hours long. It was very different from what a normal Commencement would have looked like, but it was way better than having nothing at all. I don’t remember much about that day, as everything seemed to go in a blur. The only thing that I had on the back of my mind that day was the realisation that this was my last day as a Northeastern student. After the ceremony was over, it was time to click pictures. All around I could see happy faces, and groups of people clicking pictures. It made me wonder, whether I was the only one feeling sad on the day of graduation too. Like most people, I had originally dreamed of my family being there in Boston to see me graduate, but due to COVID-19, that ended up not happening. The ceremony was broadcasted live, therefore my family could see the ceremony live from thousands of miles back home. But it just wasn’t the same as them being there in person.

We made sure to take pictures at many of Northeastern University’s landmarks, but at times, we were deterred by the long lines of fellow graduates waiting to do the same. The whole evening was spent in capturing memories of a lifetime. After that, we went to a high-end Indian restaurant to have lunch, and unwinded at a friend’s place after what was an incredibly long day.

What Next?

This is where I am now. At the crossroads of life. Unsure what my next chapter in my life would look like. But I hope it’s as interesting as this one! And as soon as I get a concrete answer to this question myself, I will create another blog post about it. Till then, take care and stay safe!

Vishrut Sundararajan, Master of Science – Telecommunication Networks, Northeastern University Class of 2021

My US Visa Interview Experience.

(Disclaimer: In this post, I would be talking about my feelings and emotions before, during, and after my visa interview. If you want to know any technical aspects of my visa interview, feel free to Direct Message me on any of my social media accounts and I would be more than happy to help you out!)

 

A couple of days back, on July 11, 2020, I got a reminder on Instagram, which reminded me that I had got my visa approved on this day in 2019. Seeing that memory evoked a lot of emotions in me, now that I am in Boston, USA, happily enrolled as a Master’s student at Northeastern University, as I type this post out. Last year, I was doing my very best to keep my future plans a secret, and only let the world know of my plans once I got the coveted green slip of visa approval. Even then, I wasn’t talking about it much, as I wasn’t certain of how things would turn out until I physically landed in the United States of America and made it past Immigration and Customs without any hiccups. Having travelled out of the USA and back once more in December 2019, I feel more confident to talk about it now.

Part 1: Before the Interview.

I got my letter of admission from Northeastern University in the last week of April 2019. The next step involved was to get an I-20, which is a form that would serve as proof of my student status in the United States. It would be issued by the university once I send proof to them about my finances, and the documents are accepted by them. I had to do this process twice since my I-20 application was rejected the first time around because my financial documents lacked the word “liquidity”(which was something Northeastern was very particular about. My other university admits were pretty chill regarding the I-20 process) After making the changes, I reapplied and thankfully it went through, or else my plan to attend Northeastern would’ve been in jeopardy since time was running out.

Northeastern took 3 whole weeks to process and send the I-20 over, resulting in a nail-biting anxious wait, as I couldn’t book a visa interview with the US Consulate in Chennai without my SEVIS ID, which would be on the I-20. But luckily, once my I-20 application was approved, I got my SEVIS ID from my Northeastern student portal, and thus I could proceed to apply for the visa interview, even before the physical I-20 form made it to my Chennai address.

I went to Muscat, Oman for a short vacation to be with my parents and brother, in May 2019, just days after resubmitting my I-20 application. Though I badly wished I could, I couldn’t make a visa appointment with the US Embassy in Muscat (which had a way less wait time than the embassy and consulates in India and would’ve saved me a lot of time and anxiety), because I was no longer a resident of Oman. And thus my only option was to search for visa appointments at the Chennai consulate, where the earliest appointment was only in July. That was two months away! This is partly because there is always a huge number of people from India, who go to the United States each year, for work or studies, or to visit loved ones. And thus, visa appointments in India are hard to come by.

My family being very superstitious, I also had to go by what date and time they saw as auspicious. And among the available slots, July 11, 2019, 10:45 am IST was apparently one of them. So I booked the date and paid $160 for the slot. (Yes, visa appointments for US embassies and consulates cost a premium). The cost also included a biometric appointment separate from the actual interview, this is where I get my photo and my fingerprints taken as part of the whole visa application process.

I returned to India with my family in June of 2019 and went about getting important documentations for the actual interview. The biometrics appointment was on June 9, and I had to carry only my passport and a copy of my visa appointment for that. It went pretty smoothly and faster than I expected, and soon I was out and heading home. In between, me and my family also made a pilgrimage trip to Kerala, and it was so good to be visiting God’s Own Country after 8 years (my last trip there was in 2011).

After returning to base, the next couple of weeks were focussed on collecting important documents and double-checking that I had everything in order. As July 11 crept nearer, my anxiety levels were only rising. Only my family and a select few of my would-be peers at Northeastern were aware of my visa appointment; I hadn’t told anyone since I wasn’t sure of the outcome at that point. The week before the visa interview, I spent the time asking people on relavant Facebook and WhatsApp groups for tips and guidance, but in the end, it was making me more anxious. Because some of their advices directly contradicted each other. In the end, I left it all to fate, good luck, and God’s grace.

The night before the interview, I made sure I had all my originals and copies of my documents in a single transparent folder, and had my passport and my visa appointment slip in place. I couldn’t sleep that night, as anxiety reached its peak. This would be something that my entire future depended on.

Part 2: The day of the interview

You know how the feeling is when you’re writing a board exam or some really important competitive exam and you can’t think about anything else until you’re done with it? Well, that’s exactly how I felt on the day of my visa interview. I woke up, mentally panicking “OMG, the day is finally here!”. I don’t remember much about what I did on that day at home; I got ready just like I would when I was going out on any other day, the only difference being that I took a lot more time doing my chores since the anxiety slowed me down.

I remember leaving home with my parents at 9am, to make it to the US Consulate by 9:30 atleast, since my appointment was at 10:45am. I was advised by people against going too early, since the applicants were made to wait outside the Consulate for their turn, and I definitely didn’t want to spend my time outdoors in the hot and humid Chennai weather. (Unsurprisingly, it was a clear sunny day).

As expected, I reached the Consulate by 9:30 and there was already a big crowd outside the Consulate and on the footpath of Anna Salai, one of the busiest roads in Chennai. My parents were there with me for a little while, giving me moral support, and then they left to go to the Mundakanniamman Temple in Mylapore to pray for me.

Now I was on my own. I looked at the crowd in front of me; at all the visa applicants hopeful of walking out with a US visa of the type they desired. We were separated into time slots, so I was standing in the queue for the 10:45am slot. There were atleast fifty people in the same queue as I was. As I stood in the queue, I noticed people walking past us; people who were done with their interviews. I mentally felt happy for those with the green slip of approval, (they were all smiles, as well), prayed for those who got the pink or white slip (administrative processing, such applicants require further checks before a decision is made), and felt sorry for those with a blue slip of rejection.

My queue moved, as all the people with the 10:45am appointment slot were called forward. I reached my first “checkpoint”, where a member of the staff looked at my appointment slot. Following which I was allowed to walk to another queue in front of the main entrance to the consulate. Here, they were letting people in, one by one, depending on the crowd at the security check area inside the Consulate. As I neared the gate, I was again asked to show my visa appointment printout and I was let into the security check area.

The security check area resembled the ones you would normally find in an airport; only much stricter. I had to remove all metal devices and empty my pockets (it only had a handkerchief and a few hundred-rupee notes). I was made to place my file of documents through the baggage scanner. After everything came out clean, I was allowed to walk across a small street into the actual Consulate where the visa interviews took place.

This was it. All I saw were people in queues and the visa officers behind counters. First, I had to go to a counter and get my fingerprints verified at the counter, to match with those I had submitted during the biometrics the previous month. Once that was over, I next had to stand in one last queue to give my visa interview.

Throughout the wait for my turn, I was checking my documents to see if everything was in place, should anything be requested during my interview. I was instructed to keep my passport and my visa appointment slip handy by the consular staff there. I kept my I-20 handy as well, since it would be the first thing asked by the visa officer. One by one, I observed the interviews going on. Though I couldn’t hear the responses of the interviewees, I could distinctly hear the visa officers talking. Some people seemed to be getting approvals, some others were getting “administrative processing”, and some applications were sadly getting rejected. I had an eye to the counter on the far right; Counter 19. It had a White lady dressed in black, and she seemed to be the strictest of the lot. I obeserved, nervously, as she took an unusually long time with the interviews, and I noticed that she handed out a blue slip and the pink slip to two applicants who were assigned to that counter. I now was panicking, praying that I shouldn’t get Counter 19 at any cost.

But just as luck would have it-

“Go to counter 19.” one of the consular staff said.

I had reached the front of the line (which I hadn’t realised as I was observing the interviews going on). When a space opened up at Counter 19, I was asked to go there. I had no choice but to go there, and hope for the best.

The lady took a good 5 minutes with the guy in front of me,who was applying for an L1 visa. She was asking him a lot of questions, I felt, but he seemed to be giving satisfactory answers. She eventually handed him a green slip, approving his visa. He thanked her and left.

As he moved away, happy, I moved towards the counter, placing my file on the counter and having my passport and my I-20 in hand, looked at her. This is how the conversation played out:

(VO- Visa Officer)

VO: Hi! Passport please! Pass them gently
(Sees my i20)
And that too as well.
Me: (Passed)
Me: Good morning ma’am!
VO: Good morning!
VO: (looking at my i20) So Computer Systems Networking and Telecommunications?
Me: Yes ma’am, the actual course name is Telecommunication Networks.
VO: Alright. What is your highest level of education?
Me: I just completed my undergrad in Electronics and Communication Engineering ma’am.
VO: When did you finish your undergrad?
Me: 2019.
VO: So when did you decide to do your master’s in the US?
(This question threw me off track since I’ve not seen any one being asked this question)
Me: When I was in my final year of my undergrad. I decided that I wanted to do my MS right after my undergrad so that I can maintain a continuity in my education. (Not the best response I could think of, on the spot.)
VO: I see that your father’s been to the US on a J1.
Me: Yeah
VO: You must’ve been really young back then! (Smiling)
Me: (smiling) Yes!
VO: So how many universities did you apply to?
Me: I’ve applied to 10 universities, out of which I got 5 admits.
VO: Can you name your admits?
Me: Yes ma’am!
University of Texas at Arlington, Illinois Institute of Technology, University of South Florida, Rochester Institute of Technology, and..Northeastern.
VO: So was Northeastern University always your first choice?
Me: Yes ma’am, since among the universities I’ve applied to, Northeastern was the only university offering Telecommunication Networks as a separate branch of study, which will help me to study the exact set of courses that would suit my long-term goals.
VO: What are your long-term goals?
Me: After my masters, I wish to come back to India, work in a reputed telecom company like Airtel or Jio for a few years, following which I plan to start a startup.
VO: Who will be sponsoring you?
Me: My father.
VO: And what does he do?
Me: He works as an Associate Professor at Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman.
VO: And how much does he earn annually?
Me: He earns $ xx k per annum.

The VO kept my passport on the tray (which I didn’t notice, it all happened in the blink of an eye), she picked the green slip and the i20 and said the golden words:

“Okay, your visa is approved, have a nice day!”
Me: Thank you very much, ma’am!

I don’t know whether the visa officer said anything else, as I pretty much got blank with excitement at getting my visa approved.

Part 3: After the interview

I looked at the clock, it said ’12 noon’. I couldn’t believe it had taken so long, since I didn’t have a watch on me at that time, so I relied on the clocks put up in various places in the Consulate. I walked out of the Consulate, almost running with excitement, as it was all over now.

Once I made my way outside the main gate, I was swarmed by auto-rickshaw drivers, who were all wooing me to take a ride with them. I didn’t know whether I had a smile on my face or by facial expressions gave me away, but the drivers somehow seemed to know that I got my visa approved, so they were all congratulating me and inviting me to choose them. I didn’t have any other means of transport either, so I had to choose one of them.

I had talked with my parents beforehand that we would meet up at the Semmozhi Poonga, a famous park located right opposite the consulate, after I’m done with the interview, so I went with one of the auto drivers, and got in his autorickshaw. Auto-rickshaw drivers think that they could mint money out of a visa approval (expecting people to pay more out of their euphoria): the driver asked me for 500 rupees (US$6.67) for a trip that would normally not cost more than 50 rupees (US$0.67). I eventually became brutally honest with him, telling him that all I had were a couple of hundred-rupee notes, and that I would be meeting my family there at the park. On hearing this, he offered his mobile phone for me to inform my parents that I was done with my visa interview and got my visa approved. We then agreed as planned, to meet at the park. I thanked the driver for giving me his phone, and once I reached the park, I gave him a hundred rupees (US$1.33).

Now, the wait began. I stood outside the park for most of the while, so as to not miss my parents arrving in the taxi, but I also made it a point to stand in the shade since the heat was unbearable that day. All the while, I kept thinking about my visa approval, which I felt, was one of the few good things that ever happened to me in this city. With nothing to pass the time by, I kept looking at the green slip handed out to me, reading and re-reading what was written in the slip.

After what seemed like half an hour, my parents finally made it to Semmozhi Poonga. I got in the car with them, excited to share my good news with them, my family back home, and eventually the rest of the world.

The end.

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My First Solo Transatlantic Flight (Part 2)

(Continued from Part 1)

Leg 2: Frankfurt to Muscat

One of the first things I did upon entering Frankfurt Airport was to click a selfie!

First picture of me in Europe!

The walk from Concourse Z to Concourse C was, I’d later realize, a long one. Like, 30-minutes long. It was helpful that there were a fair amount of travelators at Concourse Z. Yet, it was a long walk. I’d transited twice before, both through Doha, and the amount that I’d walked between gates in Doha was a fraction of what I’d walk at Frankfurt. Hence, naive lil’ me was feeling pretty confident that since I had five hours, I’d have extra time on my hands after using the restroom and having breakfast.

I left Concourse Z and entered Concourse A. Up until now, I was fairly impressed with Frankfurt Airport’s looks. Concourse Z was apparently the newer part of Frankfurt Airport. Concourse A looked visibly older. I still had a long way to go though.

The older part of the airport.

At the very end of Concourse A, there was a train that stopped at different concourses. “Yay, trains!”, I thought. I’d been on a similar train in Doha as well. The only difference was the train in Doha ran completely inside the airport, while the one at Frankfurt ran outside, offering some nice views of the entire airport (It was a huge one!).

I hopped onto one and got down at Concourse C. I thought that it was only a short walk to gate C4. But boy, was I wrong. After getting down one floor, I came across a vast walkway that had literally nothing else but travelators and signboards. It was so vast that I couldn’t find anything else in the vicinity. I noted the direction to C4 and started walking towards it. It would take me another 10 minutes before I safely reached my gate.

But this was just the beginning though. Upon reaching my gate, I saw that there was literally no restaurant or cafe in the vicinity. Something I’d taken for granted till then was the belief that there would be someplace to eat in a particular concourse. But Concourse C literally had zero options. Or they were behind other gates, which you couldn’t pass through as it wasn’t your flight. Hungry and tired after the arduous walk, this was the last thing I’d expected from an airport of such reputation. My impression of Frankfurt Airport pretty much tanked after that. Nevertheless, I set out about, looking for any place to sit and grab something to eat. On the way, I got into a restroom and decided to brush my teeth. It was weird because it wasn’t something I haven’t had to do so far in an airport. And I had to force my jet-lagged self that it was time to brush. And accept the fact that it would be nightfall before I complete my journey.

A classic transit passenger selfie!

My life saviour was a vending machine near my gate, which had snacks and drinks. Though I was craving for a proper breakfast, I realized I had to adjust with the options I had on my hands at the moment. And so I chose a bar of Snickers, for around 2 Euros. Next came the question, whether my American debit card work in the middle of Europe. I remember my dad saying that American cards usually work internationally as well, so I decided to try my luck, and it did work!! I immediately sat down, tore the wrapper of the bar, and ate the chocolate bar as if I hadn’t had food for days.

People really underestimate the power of food on your body; as I finished “breakfast”, I felt back to myself once again. Now I could finally sit and reply back to the people who had texted me on WhatsApp, including that little argument from the previous day with my friends.

Soon, it was time for security check. It went well, with the staff being polite, straightforward and committed to their job. One of the airport staff told me that I couldn’t carry water, so they took away one of the water bottles Lufthansa had given me in my previous flight, and also took my own water bottle, emptied it and gave it back to me. I know it’s all done for a reason, but all I saw at that moment in my head was the sheer wastage of purified drinking water.

Next, I had to go the airline staff and show them my ticket. After asking me where I was coming from, and whether Muscat was my final destination, they issued me an Oman Air boarding pass. It felt weird to be holding an Oman Air boarding pass in an alien city as I’d been used to flying the airline only between Muscat and Chennai, twice a year. This was the first time I would be flying into Muscat on Oman Air from a place other than Chennai.

And then I entered the waiting area at gate C4. There was a small store selling German souvenirs. And to my luck, they had sandwiches too. I didn’t waste any time and made it straight to the store and got myself a vegetarian sandwich. Breakfast finally!!! What people would buy as a snack, I was eating as breakfast.

It was a considerable wait. I had around an hour before the flight would take off. I used this time to talk to my family back in Muscat (again, haha). And also a mandatory visit to the restroom to minimize the number of times I disturb my co-passenger for restroom trips on the flight.

My aircraft in the foreground!

We were soon called for boarding. Like on the previous flight, boarding was done according to seat rows. The aircraft being an Airbus A330, I was lucky enough to have only one seat neighbour as that would make getting out of the seat a less cumbersome process.

I mentally prepared myself for another long journey. I was already jet-lagged, and I would get myself more jetlagged by the time the second part of this journey ends.

While we waited for the boarding process to complete, I was taking in the views of Frankfurt Airport, of Germany, and of a continent I’ve never stepped foot on before. The bright sunshine outside made me forget that it was still 3am back in Boston, and that’s when the magnitude of just how far Europe is from North America, truly sank in.

Frankfurt Airport!

Eventually the cabin crew made the “Boarding completed” message on the PA system, and I heaved a sigh of relief. That means we would get going. The flight, as it turned out, was half an hour delayed.

As the aircraft taxied to the runway (which took a while), I got a glimpse of the aircrafts of many of the major airlines in the world like Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways and All Nippon Airways, to name a few. Despite the emergence of new airport hubs like Doha, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, I was happy to see the melting pot of different regional giants at this one airport, Frankfurt. Somehow, Frankfurt Airport has still managed to stay relavant as a transfer hub despite tough competition from the Gulf.

Frankfurt being the home of Lufthansa, one of the biggest names in the aviation industry, I was treated to a sight of the various fleet types that Lufthansa has in its possession. From the trusty little Airbus A320 to the mighty Airbus A380, with the A330s, the A340s, and the Queen of the Skies herself in between. While we were taxiing, I noticed lots of contrails crisscrossing over the skies of Frankfurt, further convincing me of the importance that German airspace holds in the aviation industry.

We finally took to the skies. The aircraft made a left turn, allowing me to get a glimpse of Frankfurt in the distance. Soon, we left the city behind and rose above the clouds, only for the cloud cover to disappear after a while, so that I could see the ground below.

The left turn over the outskirts of Frankfurt!

Snack service started and we got a packet of chips. This was considerably more than what Lufthansa offered as a snack service at the beginning of my first leg of the journey. While I was eating, I saw the flight map, which showed us flying over major cities in Germany and the Czech Republic; cities I used to virtually travel to in the Euro Truck Simulator games.

Snack service!

The main meal of the flight came soon after; Oman Air never disappoints with the vegetarian option; they’re always delicious meals. And it was no different this time around, either!

Lunch!

While I was having my lunch, I noticed that we were directly flying over Bucharest, the capital of Romania. I even managed to get a picture of the international airport there!

Bucharest, Romania from above!

In a few minutes, we exited Europe and started cruising over the Black Sea. Having finished my lunch, I decided it was time to get some shut-eye. I went to the restroom to check out how it’s like on an Oman Air Airbus A330, it was pretty neat!

Mandatory bathroom selfie!

I slept for a solid 3 hours and woke up to see that the sun had already set. My bad, I was looking forward to capturing the setting sun. Anyways, this was the second sunset for me on this journey!

Capturing whatever little sunlight was left..

Also when I woke up, I noticed the pre-landing snack placed neatly on my table, without my knowledge, by the cabin crew. I appreciated the fact that they did this without disturbing me (I wouldn’t have minded if they’d woken me up either, food is bae haha). It was a hot wrap. I put on something interesting to watch in the in-flight entertainment system (which was better than the IFE on Oman Air’s Boeing 737), and had the snack.

Pre-landing snack!

We were flying over the most famous city in the Gulf: Dubai! Unfortunately, it was under a cloud cover (just like it was over London), so I couldn’t get a glimpse of the major landmarks of this megacity. I continued with watching a documentary on the IFE, and in no time, we were flying over Oman. I watched as we flew right beside the coast of the Batinah Governorate (North and South). This meant I got a good aerial view of the major towns in the Governate like Sohar, Saham, and Barka, in that order.

As we descended further, we were over Muscat. I’d reached my destination! And my day-long journey was coming to an end!! Part of me wanted the journey to end, part of me was sad that it was coming to an end. Like always, I was trying to spot some familiar landmarks from the sky but as it was dark, that wasn’t easy. It actually took me some time to realize that we would be landing from the west, that would put the aircraft right in the path of my home! The last time I’d been in an aircraft that landed from the western side of the airport was in June 2018, so I was really excited to see my neighbourhood from above, after so long!

I was naturally capturing the entire approach, for I wasn’t sure when I’d be landing from this direction again.

The rush of adrenalin you get when you know you’re coming home, cannot be matched by anything else. We soon touched down in complete darkness. I instinctively removed the flight mode on my phone. As the aircraft went and docked at one of the gates, we were finally allowed to disembark. It was a long wait though, as it was a full flight. While I stood in my place, waiting for my turn to disembark, a guy a few years older than me asked me whether I was from Northeastern University, looking at my T-Shirt. As it turned out, he was an alumni from the same university and was also travelling to visit his family in Muscat, and had taken the same flights that I did! We disembarked the aircraft together and were making small talk until we reached the terminal, where we parted ways and wished each other luck.

Home turf!

After going to the restroom and freshening up, I proceeded towards the immigration area. I saw a vending machine and thought I’d grab a water bottle to drink. Instinctively, I whipped out my Bank of America debit card and searched for the card slot. Only for one of the airport staff to come and tell me that it’s a cash-only vending machine. I was like “What?”. A classic example of reverse culture shock, for someone who considers Muscat to be his home.

I went to immigration and was surprised to find that there was literally no crowd. True, I’d arrived from Europe, and most of my co-passengers would’ve been transit passengers. That means good news for people like me! Anyways, the immigration process was smooth, the policeman had one look at my visit visa, asked where I was coming from (I said Boston, and he understood). He stamped my passport and the visa, and I was on my way to the baggage area.

This was where I was nervous. Things tend to get misplaced when you’re on connecting flights, and I was flying on two different airlines that were only having a codeshare. Hence I was nervously waiting to see my bags, but to my luck, both of them arrived in quick succession. I picked them up and went to the customs area, luckily I wasn’t pulled over for further inspection.

That’s it, now all that was left, was to meet my family. And soon, I spotted my family waiting for me and I now knew that my long journey had finally come to an end.

The End.

My First Solo Transatlantic Flight (Part 1)

In the winter of 2019, I decided to go visit my family in Muscat for the winter holidays. Since none of my classmates and my other friends here had any plans of going home for the holidays, that meant I’d be travelling for 24 hours straight, all by myself!

The Itinerary

I flew Lufthansa from Boston to Frankfurt on December 16, 2019 at 4:30pm (Boston time). After a layover of around 5 hours at Frankfurt Airport, I had my connecting flight with Oman Air to Muscat at 10:30am on December 17 (Frankfurt time). I’d land in Muscat at 7:30pm, December 17 (Muscat time)

Leg 1: Boston to Frankfurt

This was the leg I was most excited about. Because the flight was on a Boeing 747, an aircraft on which “I wanted to fly on at least once before I die”. Hence I was really looking forward to this particular flight. I couldn’t sleep the previous night out of sheer excitement, (and also because I ended up in a needless argument with my best friends back in India, but I didn’t let that dampen my spirits by too much).

I woke up at 7am on December 16 so that I could prepare to leave by 12pm from my home. I had tea and cornflakes as breakfast, just like I would on any other day. Surprisingly, for someone who is always late, I actually had some free time before it was 12pm. So I was talking to my family who were giving me last-minute tips to cope with the long journey ahead of me. When it was 11am, I made two omelets to suffice for “lunch”, as I had no clue how long it would take for me at check-in and immigration in an American airport. (I did call and ask my family friend about how it worked in the US, since I did expect it to be different from the other countries I’ve been to. So I did have a vague idea before I reached the airport).

By 12pm I was outside my home and booked a Lyft to drop me off at the airport. The fallout from the previous night was still going on (in hindsight, I should’ve just gone offline. But I had to give my family live updates. Just Asian things), so I couldn’t really respond with equal warmth to my Lyft driver’s small talk, who was extremely cheerful and friendly. Talking to him did make me feel more relaxed though! We reached the airport and he helped me out with the bags (a first for me in America). I made sure I tipped him.

The start of my day-long journey!!

I was carrying two big check-in bags, a small cabin baggage (which contained one set of clothes and other documents), in addition to my backpack. So I definitely needed a trolley cart to make my way to the check-in counter. I was about to encounter my first “American airport culture shock”. More on that in the following paragraph.

I went to take a cart out of the many trolley carts kept together outside the entrance. But it just wouldn’t come out, no matter how hard I tried. While I looked around to see why, I came across a kiosk that said that I had to pay $5 just to take a cart. I really had no other option but to take my debit card out and make the transaction, in the freezing cold. My hands were literally stone cold if I was without gloves for just a couple of minutes.

The kiosk!

After putting all my bags on the cart, I made my way in. To my surprise, the check-in counters were all empty. For a moment I wondered whether I made it too early to the airport, before I noticed that Lufthansa’s counter was open. I went in and got my bag checked in, all in just 5 minutes. That’s when realization hit me that I spent $5 for a cart that I used only for 5 minutes!

Next, I made my way to immigration and security. I know it would take a long time, since it’s TSA after all, so I thought I’d get done with that and then wait for my flight. First I made my way to a singular immigration officer (my second US airport culture shock. I’ve always seen a dedicated row of immigration counters on both arriving and departure sides of the airport). He asked me a few basic questions and scanned my passport but he didn’t stamp it (my third shock). I told him that he didn’t stamp my passport, he said that I was good to go. And so I went on to Security.

This would be my first time with the dreaded TSA. Naturally, I was a bit nervous, though I had no reason to be. I was asked to remove my shoes, my belt, my watch, and practically all my valuables and keep them on a tray. I was then scanned myself, and then waited for my valuables to arrive. I’d read a lot about how things get stolen at this point in many airports, so I was keeping a keen eye though not so much as to creep the security personnel out. After what seemed like 10 minutes, I got them and I went to the gate to wait for my flight.

Found some time to take a travel selfie!

I had more than 2 hours on my hands, so I decided to grab some lunch at Burger King (which was a long walk away). And then I sat at my gate, munching at my chicken burger while enjoying the panoramic view of the runways and taxiways of Boston Logan outside.

I watched as the Lufthansa Boeing 747 slowly arrived at the gate, after a 7 hour long journey from Frankfurt. For a Boeing 747 lover, it was a sight to watch. Even more unbelievable was the fact that I’d be in one for the next 6 hours!

The staff at the Lufthansa gate were really helpful. I’d gone there for a small query, and when I told them that it would be my first time on a Lufthansa, they were really excited and wished me a wonderful experience.

Eventually, we boarded the aircraft. I had too many things on my hand to carry; my file containing my boarding pass and passport, my cabin bag, and amidst all this, I somehow managed to hold my phone to take pictures of the Boeing 747. Whatever I could manage to click. One of the first things I did click was of the staircase of the Boeing 747, as it was also my first time on a double-decker aircraft.

The staircase on the Boeing 747. I believe it leads to Lufthansa’s Business Class!

As I went to my window seat (which I’d made it a point to choose in advance), I saw a lady sitting there. Now if you have flown frequently, you would know that it’s never an easy thing to tell someone you’re sitting in their seat. It wasn’t for me, either. But the lady apologized and shifted to the middle seat ( her original seat), so that went pretty smoothly for me.

After getting my seat!

As I settled down in my seat and looked outside to watch the sun setting behind Boston’s skyline, I took a few deep breaths, trying to forget whatever happened during the past couple of days and to enjoy the start of my day-long journey across the world, back home.

View from my window seat.

The flight took its own sweet time to depart, in fact, we were delayed by half an hour. The sun had set by then, and it was dark outside. After what seemed like ages, we finally left the gate, taxied, and waited at the end of the runway to take off. The problem was the wait. I literally watched no less than five flights touchdown on the runway we would be taking off from. More delays, nice, I thought.

We took off and I was happy that I was finally coming home. After the seatbelt sign came off, the snack service started. We got a small bag of chips.

Snack service!

Before that, however, I was checking out Lufthansa’s in-flight entertainment (IFE) system (spoiler alert: It’s amazing!). It had a large range of TV show and movie collections, such that you wouldn’t get bored on any long flight. While going through the film catalogue, I came across the Hindi film “Don” (the 2006 remake). I never expected to find that movie on an IFE and thus I thought I’d watch it as I had nothing else to do, anyway. (And also since I loved the “Aaj Ki Raat” song!).

A still from the movie “Don”.

Soon we left the United States behind and were cruising over Canadian airspace. We were about 2 hours into the flight and the meal service started. Since my parents had selected the Asian Vegetarian Meal option (against my wishes) while booking the itinerary, I got my meal before the normal service started.

AVML stands for Asian Vegetarian Meal. You’re welcome.

The movie went on as I had my meal. It got over soon. By now I was too sleepy (remember I had woken up at 7am), and so I decided to take a short nap.

Upon waking up after a couple of hours’ sleep, I saw that we were over Europe. In particular, the United Kingdom. In fact, we flew right over London, which I consider the capital of the world! Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a view of the city due to the thick cloud cover over England at that time.

I tried to go back to sleep as it was early morning over Europe. But in vain. Around this time, I got my pre-landing snack. It was a cupcake and a bowl of cut fruits.

In another hour, we were over Germany. I was sad that the flight was coming to an end, but also happy that I was halfway through to Muscat.

In ten minutes, we were near Frankfurt. I was watching the landing live through the flight map, as the aircraft prepared for landing. Peculiarly, I noticed that the cabin lights were never dimmed for landing (which is strange, because I took this practice for granted).

It was around 5am local time and I hadn’t slept properly at all. It was bedtime (11pm) according to Boston time and here I was, landing into a new day, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived.

20191217_054629
Frankfurt Airport – The home of Lufthansa!

It took around 15 minutes for me to exit the aircraft since it was a large aircraft with more than 300 passengers (probably even more, it was a full flight).

Frankfurt airport was deserted. At least, this particular concourse was. All the stores were closed, and people were mostly figuring out where their connecting Lufthansa flight was. Since my next flight was on an Oman Air, I didn’t know where to go as my flight wasn’t on the information screen yet (since it was five hours away). I went and inquired to the Lufthansa staff nearby, who were nice enough to look up my flight number on their system and guide me to the Oman Air gate, C4.

Concourse Z of Frankfurt International Airport!

So? Was it a “wonderful experience” with Lufthansa for me? Yes it was! The staff were nice and friendly, the IFE was amazing, and the food service was great! I had a seamless experience with Lufthansa and I was looking forward to how Oman Air would perform on my second half of my journey. More on that in the next post, since this has already gotten too long!

(To be continued in part 2)

The 2010s: A Decade in Review

Like everyone else, I too was all excited about the new year 2020. What made this even more special is the fact that it was also the start of a new decade. So while I read so many people talk about how 2019 has been for them, I thought I would go one step further and talk about how the entire 2010s has been for me. Because, hey, I get to do this only once in 10 years, right?

We all started 2010 as a bunch of confused and lost middle school kids (I was in 7th grade at that time, just for your reference). This was also the time when we were about to become teens. We started 2010 even before our teenage years started!! How crazy is that!

By the end of 2010, most of us had become 13 years old. It was the start of the tumultuous teenage years. You all have read in your science classes as to what happens once you hit puberty right? Well, I got to see the effects of this gradually in school, among my classmates and peers. Suddenly, all those innocent kids around me were consumed by high-school romance, drama, and whatnot. Probably also the reason why people struggle to have a decent high-school life.

Then the 10th-grade board exams happened. We were made to fear this day right from fifth grade I guess? So much so, that at the end of my 8th-grade final exams, I sadly marked the start of the “tension era” of our lives – something that started from 9th grade and lasted until you retire from your job, right in your old age!

Following the successful completion of our 10th-grade board exams, most of us changed schools because it just so unfortunately happens that what we want to pursue isn’t usually an option in our own school! Again, you’re introduced to the same old high-school drama, the only difference being that, you’re the outsider now, so you’re almost always at the receiving end of things.

The 12th grade exams come to an end. We all childishly put up statuses saying “Done with school”, didn’t we? And then it was time to choose what we actually wanted to do in life. If you’re an Asian though, you had to choose between engineering and medicine. And within engineering, you had to choose any one of the two dozen options available, all of which may seem alien to you if your true passion lay someplace else. Though I do know people who had successfully strayed away from this path and chose to pursue what they loved, they’re very few and far in between.

So how did we pass our time in college? Bunking classes, making memories, going to the movies and what not? A considerable percentage of us also found love and are going strong even as I type this out. (Nah, not me). Some of us have had their hearts broken as well. (Again, not me). My point is, college was a time of experimentation and learning new truths about life in general.

Towards the end of the decade, we found ourselves, with a Bachelor’s degree in hand, and standing at a crossroads in life, contemplating whether to start working or to pursue higher studies, either in India or abroad. As the decade came to an end, most of us were either working in a wonderful company, or pursuing their post-graduation in a reputed university. To those few who chose to take a break and contemplate their choices, I wish you all the best.

My 2010s in Review:

Well, I had a pretty nice start to my 2010s. I started the decade as a Class Prefect of my class, and it sure was a huge responsibility for me at that age, having been elected as the representative of my class by my classmates. I had a reputation for being too strict of a disciplinarian (partially cuz of the way I was raised, haha), but at the same time, as the class representative, I made sure I didn’t show partiality towards anyone or any group of people, even if it meant that I couldn’t really get close with people.

2010 was also the year I switched school buses; I was initially overwhelmed by seeing all the new people in the new bus, but eventually, some of the junior kids over there included me in their bambush (called ‘hand cricket’ in India) game teams, and I ended up making a life-long friendship with all of them, despite our different ages, grades, languages, cultures, religions, etc. It was (and still is) a truly secular group that we made. One thing I learned from them is that being the strict, serious guy all the time was not always fun and that I needed to loosen up a little. And so I did! My class teacher in 8th grade was really surprised when I declined to run for the Class Prefect post that year, but I decided I needed a break year from the huge responsibility (huge, at that age), that I had carried the previous year. It was all a part of me “loosening up” a little, while I still remained in the good books of the teachers. And I’m glad I did that, because God knows what kind of a person I’d have ended up being, if I hadn’t taken that break.

Up until the year 2012, I grew up blindly considering that all teachers were equal to Gods. It was something I, born into a family of teachers, was made to believe in. Well, that was the year I ended up being dragged into petty politics by a couple of teachers at my school, for their own benefit, and for no fault of mine. Eventually it snowballed into such a big issue that my parents were called, and I was treated like a delinquent. Fortunately, some of the other teachers, who knew me since my first day there, backed me up and vouched for my character. But that was a new experience for me, politics and all. It was also the first time that I saw my dad, who was a member of the school management committee at that time, and who was the main target of those couple of teachers I talked about, stand rock solid by me when I was confused and crying, afraid as to what would happen next. To date, I’ve never seen my dad that angry: angry at all those who decided to stoop so low as to attempt to malign his son’s image, just to get at him. That was also the day my dad amended his advice to mean that one should worship all teachers as Gods, but not always expect every one of them to be worthy of such reverence and respect.

The very next year, in 2013, after completing secondary school, I decided to leave the comfortable life I’d been leading in Muscat for the past 6 years and moved to a place I considered my hometown, Chennai. I thought at that time, that moving to my hometown would be a breeze since I’d be surrounded by peers speaking the same language and having similar cultures. Little did I realize that I’d made a terrible error in judgment. Chennai turned out to be anything but home, and those two years where I did my 11th and 12th were the toughest years of my life. Isolated, and bullied at that time, I eventually slipped into depression for a couple of years. On one side, I’m glad that I did, as it now makes me respect all those who have their own mental issues going on, something that is trivialized in my part of the world. Somehow I made it out of higher secondary school, and my last day there was one of the happiest days in a long time.

I was all excited for college, when it started in 2015. It was a wonderful change from my higher secondary school life. I was back in an environment where people from all over India were in my class, and realised that this was the class environment I was most comfortable in. Though it wasn’t without its own ups and downs, it was some of the best four years I’ve had. Towards the fag end of it, I made some amazing friends through a school friend of mine who also coincidentally joined the same college as I did. It was so nice to meet her once again, and all her amazing friends too! We did end up becoming a close-knit group, and finally I got a chance at living and making memories that I couldn’t have done by myself.

2019 was the year I moved to Boston for my Master’s. I couldn’t believe it was all happening for real, so much so that the flight from Doha to Boston felt unreal. The stress and sweating over college applications the previous year had all paid off. The coursework is many more times rigorous than what I’d been used to all this while, and the projects were so hard that I ended up crying over the phone to my family back home!! But I successfully completed one semester there, and here I am, ready for a new decade!


So what’s in store for us in this decade?

Well, this decade will be the turning point in our lives for all of us. This will be the decade where we will learn to be independent (if we haven’t, already). Because, until now, let’s be honest, we’ve mostly had our lives easy, as we were dependent on our parents for almost everything.

Most of us will finish their post-graduation studies, and get a job. To all those already working, you will get a good promotion(s). Life will then go on for a few more years until the topic of marriage comes up. I know a few of my classmates who were already married and with kids before the turn of this decade, so it’s safe to assume that by the end of this decade, the rest of us would be settled down in life with a little family of our own. And then life would come full circle, as we become mommies and daddies, and learn how troublesome we probably had been to our family when we were all kids.

I guess by the time all these happen, we would be staring at the end of the 2020s. And then, if I am lucky enough to have a little family of my own, who are supportive of my writings, I will be back once again in front of my device, and provide a review similar to this, as to how the 2020s had been.

The Other Side.

Hello everyone! I’m sure everyone is loving my Boston stories on Instagram! If you’re yet to follow me, you can find me here.

Yes, I’m surely having fun in the United States, despite the mounting homework we get on an everyday basis. That’s grad life for you! 😀

It’s time I get a little real. This post is neither travel or aviation-related, it’s personal.

You’re all excited to travel so far away and start a new phase of life, and your family and friends are all excited (of course there would be some jealous people around, that’s inevitable).

I was, as well! I looked forward to August 8, the day of my journey. In the days leading up to my departure, I managed to bring friends over to my place for the first time in four years (not that I’m a heartless guy who never invites people, just that my friends all live in different parts of Chennai and I didn’t have any real “neighbourhood friends” of my age group). I also (unsuccessfully) tried to convert my two-wheeler learners’ license in India to a permanent one (just ran out of time in the end). I also went gymming until the very last day, even though my trainer said I could take the last day off. Going to the gym was something that kept me going and engaged especially in my last semester when I had no classes to attend. I guess I just wanted to say one last goodbye to that place.

My entire family had come to the airport to send me off. My friends couldn’t make it as it was a late-night departure. At that moment, for some reason, I was caught up between two emotions: Wanting to go through those gates and start a new chapter, but also, I didn’t want to leave my family behind.

I did enter those gates eventually and had an amazing flight with Qatar Airways. We landed on time and went to the place we would be staying temporarily. For more on that, read my post here.

So I had accomplished one of Indian families’ biggest dreams: send their children off to get the best education in a far-away country. What follows after that, once their children land so far away from everyone?

One of the first things I had to do upon arriving was paying my first semester fees. But it wasn’t as straighforward as it sounded. My parents had an account in one country, lived in another, and their son lived further away in yet another country. Hence, coordinating the whole payment process wasn’t easy. It wasn’t a question of money, it was as to how to send it. I remember staying up way past midnight in Boston, talking to my parents in Muscat, who in turn communicated with their bank manager in Chennai. Eventually after all this, I woke up one morning to an email saying that my fees have been received. Trust me, I never felt so relieved as I was at that moment.

Next, I had to get a local number. But there is no “recharge through a recharge card” or “recharge by asking someone to top-up for you” business here. You’ll have to give your credit card information in the app and the company will deduct the money. The problem was, I didn’t have a credit card yet. Neither a debit card. And it didn’t accept my Forex card. Not really knowing anyone locally that close to temporarily request for their card info, I called my family back home and ask them to install the very same app, and create an account for me with their credit card info. This was the first time I broke down and cried, feeling guilty as to how I had to unnecessarily trouble my family so far away for something as trivial as activating my mobile number. Fortunately for me, this whole process worked in the end.

My friends back in India were some of the people I truly opened up to about my first few days here. They knew about the couple of times I broke down crying, something I didn’t tell my family until now because I didn’t want them to start feeling sad as well.

Then came the reality of living all on your own, in an unfamiliar country, that was so different from the ones you’ve lived in before. Add to the fact that I had absolutely zero blood relations in the USA at that time, so it was me who had to learn the nuances of everyday life in America and talk about it to my family back home, rather than getting accustomed to the American way of life at an accelerated pace through your relatives who lived here. (Which I realised, after coming here, is how 90% of the Indian students coming here got adjusted to the country).

Within a week of arriving in Boston, my friends flew off to their relatives’ places. There were times I wished I too had family here, maybe I wouldn’t have felt as homesick as I was back then. (I easily get homesick). Anyways, not complaining much, as I got a chance to explore the city I was in. More on that in my following posts.

The prices here were off the roof. As compared to India, everything here was atleast twice the Indian cost. Initially I couldn’t figure out how to use my Forex card, and I was in a state of anxiety and panic because I had limited liquid cash on me and I really didn’t know what to do if I do end up running out of that money. Fortunately I was able to get my card working before that happened.

Bank of America took forever to issue me my debit card. All my friends had either a debit or a credit card (some had received both), and I was the only person still using a Forex card, for 38 long days to be precise. Forex cards, though accepted in most places, are not usually accepted in vending machines and kiosks and this was a drawback for me. To say that I was frustrated, was an understatement. I had to write a feedback online, waited for their customer service rep to call back, and made my frustration clear to them, something I don’t do very often. I got the card in the mail within a couple of days following that call.


But how am I right now?

Right now I can say that I’m (almost) fully adjusted to the day-to-day life in America. Having purchased all the neccessary home items within a week of moving into my permanent accommodation, and getting settled in my new surroundings, now my only hardship is the mountain of assignments given in the university! 😛

Whenever I’d felt down that I had no relatives around, my mom told me that I should be proud of the fact that I’m the first from my family to live in the US. I look forward to “host” my parents and brother when they arrive here hopefully next summer. I already got a ton of ideas and places to explore as a family!

Also, in a way, having no one from my family here to tell me how life is like, gave me a chance to learn on my own. For someone like me, that’s a huge leap of maturity and it has definitely made me a better person. Yes, I might’ve done a few things differently from what my friends’ relatives advised them to do, but I get a chance to learn on my own what’s right and what’s probably not the best idea. Everyone makes these mistakes when they move to a new country and it’s all part of the learning process, I’d say.

I probably would be visiting Chennai in the summer. Nothing is finalized yet, though if anything, I’d want to go back home during the holidays to meet my family who had come to the airport to send me off, to meet my grandmother who broke down when I’d stepped out of my home in Chennai when it was time to leave, and couldn’t accompany me till the airport (and felt bad about it). Family is everything, after all. Atleast for me.

And also, a couple of meetups with my group of friends before they too fly away to different parts of the world, just like I did.


Bottom line:

If you, as a prospective student aiming to study in the USA, found this post scary, don’t!

I do have my own share of fun here! This is an amazing country to travel on your own! It’s just that I wanted to say that there will be times when you do feel homesick, there will be times when you feel like “What am I doing here, so far away from everyone?”. And it’s quite normal.

I’ll tell you what I do to cope with all that:

1. Keep in touch with family and friends back home on a regular basis. When it comes to friends, make sure that you do put in the effort to stay in touch with them! After all you don’t want to lose friends on the basis of “You forgot me once you moved away!”

And only do this if they too put in the equal effort to stay in touch with you! You don’t want to waste your time attempting to stay in touch with people who don’t reciprocate the same with you! You can always make new friends here!

2. If you’re one of those people who don’t have a close-knit set of friends back home, make some here! Americans, mostly, are very friendly people and you can build your own friendship base here! Not to forget, Indian students are present in almost every major university! So this is a good place to make your own group of friends!

This point applies even otherwise, as well. Because I read this in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book:

“Make new friends, but keep the old,

For one is silver, the other is gold.”

3. Explore!

Get to know the city you’re in, and slowly make it feel like home to you! I’ve earmarked every Sunday here to go explore a part of the city. You can do this solo, or grab some like-minded people with you! It’s also a great opportunity to get a chance to interact with the locals as well!

4. Lastly if you’re one of those people that don’t have any blood relations in the USA, fret not!

It isn’t that hard to get adjusted here, for everyone speaks English over here! Only a few things differ in the American and the Indian ways of life, which I’ll go into more detail in a future post. I, for one, really enjoy learning the American way of life on my own and talking about it to my family and friends back home. If you’re able to, try bringing your parents and siblings over,and tour the country during the vacation as a family!

I’ll end this post on a happy note, with a picture of a bunch of homemade brownies and some other goodies that one of my family friends had sent all the way from Ohio! (Which is around 1000km away from Massachusetts). This was totally unexpected for me and the icing on the cake was that little note you see in the picture, that said “Welcome to the USA!”. Fun fact is, it’s been 15 years since I last saw them before they moved to the USA and hence they were extremely happy when they came to know that I’d be coming to the US for higher studies.


To my friends and peers in Boston, let me know as to how your life is going about! And how you all are coping with homesickness, if any! I would love to hear your experiences and tips!

My first day in the United States of America.

So I made it to Boston, United States after what was a long and draining journey, both physically and emotionally.

What did I do on my first day? If I were merely a tourist, I’d have been visiting all the places of interest and that would’ve been pretty much it. But since I was a student, who would be studying for two years, my first priority was going to my university and getting my ID card, which would serve as proof of my student status even outside the university.

And so we did just that. We also wanted to check out the place where we would be staying after our university reopened. We were staying off-campus and we had taken an apartment which was really close to the university. The problem was, this area was a 30-minute walk from where we were temporarily staying. Fortunately, one of my friends had a relative in town, who had a car and who offered to take us all to that neighbourhood.

On the way, we got to check out the residential neighbourhoods of Boston, and got to check out some of the old New England style buildings, easily distinguishable by their architecture and their typical red shade of paint on them.

Here’s a sample.

After checking out our future accommodation, we went to the university where we would be studying for the next two years. We had to go to a building called Speare Hall, to collect our ID cards (known in the university slang as “Husky Cards” after the Northeastern mascot, the Husky dog).

The place where we got our Husky Card!

The whole process took less than 5 minutes. We were asked to pose for a picture, asked to show our passports, and we got our Husky cards after that. We had officially become Huskies now!

Our next job was to open a bank account. We chose Bank of America, primarily because of its strong presence across the country. We had to open two types of accounts: a checking account (this is the account that we can access with our debit card) and a savings account ( this account cannot be accessed with our debit card, it’s basically like a safe). For now, we opened a checking account and we were told that we would receive our debit cards in the mail in 7-10 business days. (Though it would eventually take me a total of 38 days, a few calls, two “I didn’t get my debit card” complaints, and as a last resort, a formal complaint through the feedback section on their website, to finally receive my Bank of America debit card).

Bank of America, Huntington Avenue

Next, we went to the main entrance of Northeastern University and got a picture of it.

Northeastern University!

Since we had a lot of time on our hands, we decided to check out the university and its buildings, one by one.

Dodge Hall

Near the Curry Student Center.

A piece of graffiti painting on the northern side of Ruggles Station. The Orange Line passes right through the university.

Northeastern University Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex

Bicycle tracks on the southern side of Northeastern University.

A bridge that passes over the railway line enabling students to cross from the north to the south and vice versa.

We walked back home and checked out all the important landmarks in the neighbourhood, one by one.

Just one of the handful of colleges located on Huntington Avenue.

Longwood Medical Area is home to some of the country’s finest hospitals.

Stop&Shop is a lifesaver for the Northeastern student population here.

Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital.

So that’s how my first day in the United States went about! It wasn’t much, but it was a start!

From Chennai To Boston: Part 2

(Hi! I’m Vishrut Sundararajan and I’m documenting my journey from Chennai to Boston in two posts. If you haven’t read the first part, I urge you to do so here: From Chennai to Boston: Part 1 )

(Continued from Part 1)

August 8, 0600 hrs Qatar Time :

Getting down the aircraft the old-fashioned way was a sight in itself. Seeing the morning sun was a refreshing sight.

 

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The morning sun!
 

I boarded the shuttle bus waiting below and looked forward to transiting through Hamad International Airport for the third time. This was a little edge I had over my friends: familiarity with the airport. I knew exactly how to proceed through the airport.

Transit passengers were greeted with a security check, which was as stringent as the one at Chennai airport. But it was definitely better organized and went about more smoothly.

Next, I had to get down an escalator and enter the center of the airport. Hamad International Airport is known by its huge yellow teddy bear, which is always a spot to take a selfie/picture at no matter how many times you’ve been there.

 

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Mandatory selfie!

 

As is common with almost all airports located in the Gulf, the airport was home to a number of high-end shops and had luxury cars on display.

I came to know that I had to board a small train inside the airport to get to the desired gate for me, D3. I had been on the train the last time I was transiting through Qatar and was amazed at how there was a train inside an airport. I was happy to ride on the train once again!

Me and my friends made it to the waiting area near the gate and we had 20 minutes in hand before we had to move to the gate. We made the most of this time by refreshing ourselves in the bathroom and contacting our family and friends and informing them that we had successfully completed the first leg of our journey. This is when time flew really fast and it was 7am already. We had to go to the gate now.

August 8, 0700 hrs Qatar Time:

It felt like we barely had any time to take a breather. At the gate, there was another security check, identical to how it was the first time. I was asked a few questions by the airport staff about the purpose of my trip and whether I had packed all the bags on my own. I felt that these additional security measures were typical of US-bound flights. The security check seemed to take forever, as they were being thorough with the checking.

Eventually, it got over and I got my things back. There was a waiting area where I had to wait before they called for boarding. Since I made it to the gate just in time, I barely had time to wait in the waiting area before I was called for boarding. Again, we were made to board in zones. And again, we were in zone 1. So we were the first to board.

I saw the aircraft I’d be flying in: A Boeing 777. It would be my first-ever time in a Triple Seven and I was excited about flying on the world’s largest twin-engine jet.

 

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My home for the next 14 hours!

 

Only after I boarded the aircraft I truly realised how long the aircraft was. My seat was 43A and it seemed to take forever to reach my seat. Having flown mainly on narrow-body jets like the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320, my feeling at that time was similar to a small-town guy visiting a big city for the very first time.

I settled down in my window seat and looked outside at the ground. I wouldn’t be seeing the ground level for another 14 hours, which was a scary thought in itself!

My seat neighbours for the second leg of the journey were an American couple. Though we had minimal interaction throughout the flight, they were nice people.

August 8, 0755 hrs Qatar Time:

It was time. For the longest flight journey of my life.

The aircraft started to push back and I was really really looking forward to the long flight!

While it taxied to the runway I got a glimpse of almost all types of aircraft operated by Qatar Airways.

 

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The Airbus A380.
 

The huge aircraft took off and I once again got a glimpse of The Pearl, Qatar, an artificial island which I had photographed from above on my previous flight from Qatar last year.

 

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Long time no see!
 

One advantage of flying halfway across the world is that you get to see half of the world from above.

After we exited Qatar, we were flying parallel to Saudi Arabia, keeping a safe distance so as to not fall under its airspace. But you could make out the coastline of eastern Saudi Arabia from your window seat. We briefly also flew past the tiny country of Bahrain.

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Saudi Arabia is visible in the distance.
 

 

In the meantime, I checked out Oryx One, Qatar Airways’ in-flight entertainment system and found the Tamil movie “96”. I had watched one half of it on a flight from Muscat to Chennai in the summer and I wanted to finish watching it. So I did that and in the end, I didn’t like it as much as everyone else did, for some reason.

After a short while, we were flying near the Kuwaiti coast. Though we weren’t flying exactly over Kuwait, you could make out the capital, Kuwait City, from above. That was an amazing sight. I’m sure the aerial view would’ve looked much better at night!

 

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An extremely zoomed-in picture of Kuwait City. Note the lines representing major roads.
 

After Kuwait came Iraq. A country with a rich and ancient history of its own, revolving around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was a welcome change to see some greenery and rivers and canals in an Arab country.

 

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Some rivers and canals.
 

I caught a faraway glimpse of Baghdad, the capital city but what caught my eye was how the city of Erbil was arranged. The whole city was organised in a circular manner and I was amazed at how the city officials maintained the circular arrangement to this day.

 

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Erbil, Iraq.
 

Around this time, we got our first meal service. It’s usually said that your taste buds don’t work properly when you’re flying on an aircraft, but I’ve always found airline food to be delicious. It was no different this time either!

First meal service!

While eating the delicious food, I was taking a look outside every now and then to see if anything interesting comes by outside. As I was eating my food, we crossed the border into Turkey.

The Turkish countryside consisted of mountains and more mountains. I couldn’t see much of life in Turkey. It was all mountains everywhere.

 

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The mountains of eastern Turkey.
 

Once all of the passengers were done with their meals, the cabin crew came around and made everyone to shut the windows. This was something new to me and as someone who loved the window view, I closed the windows with much disappointment.

Anyways, I took this opportunity to take a nap. The cabin was perfectly dim now, dim enough to sleep. And you know how sleepy you get after you’ve had some great food! So I just took out my neck pillow, opened my blanket and dozed off (again a first, as I normally don’t sleep on flights).

I don’t know how long I ended up sleeping, but I woke up to see that I’d completely missed out on seeing Europe. We had just flown past the Danish coast by the time I had woken up. I took out my Amazon Prime and started watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. I had downloaded a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy for watching in the flight even though I knew Qatar Airways had a great in-flight entertainment system in place.

Shortly, my seat neighbours got up and went to the restroom. I decided to get up as well and make use of this little opportunity to stretch my legs and also use the restroom in the process. I was told how important it was to stretch your legs in a long-haul flight. Also, as the window seat guy, I didn’t want to trouble my seat neighbours too much by asking them to get up for me whenever I wanted to use the restroom or just wanted to walk for a bit.

After I’d settled back in my seat, once that particular episode got over, I slept off once again, after realizing that we were only flying over the North Sea and there was nothing really to look out for.

I woke up again just when the aircraft was flying over the western part of Scotland. I was seeing the United Kingdom for the first time!! Though all I saw were mountains, it was still a matter of excitement to see the UK, a country that is so well-known all over the world.

 

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A glimpse of the Scottish Highlands!
 

As I crossed Europe completely, I realized how I’d never been to Europe even once, and now I was overflying the entire continent and going to the United States!

We were served with a sandwich shortly afterward, as a snack service. My friends ended up thinking this was the second meal service and that no more meal services would be there. Having seen countless flight review videos on YouTube, I knew that there would definitely be one more meal service for flights this long.

Snack service.

Anyways the snack service was a welcome thing as I was starting to feel just a little hungry at that time. Of course, I had no complaints about the sandwich at all!

I whipped out my phone once again to watch a few more episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. I wanted to see if the aircraft flew over Greenland, and if it did, I wanted to witness it with my own eyes! We were still a couple of flying hours away from Greenland, so I figured I’d get to watch atleast 2 episodes.

Eventually, the flight path ended up going below Greenland, and I ended up being disappointed. I was really looking forward to seeing all the snow from above, just like in a few flight review videos. Disappointed, and also tired, I decided to doze off once again and wake up when the second meal service came around.

Only thing is, I didn’t wake up. I was woken up. By my friend who was asked by one of the cabin crew to wake me up for the second meal service. I woke up dazed and confused, like someone who’s had a great sleep and didn’t understand what was going on, after being woken up. The cabin crew member did apologise multiple times for having to wake me up, and instead, I politely thanked her for waking me up.

I had chicken biriyani this time around, a first for me on any flight journey. I had never even dreamt of chicken biriyani as an in-flight meal. Nevertheless, it was delicious, and having that second meal woke me up for good. I did not sleep after that. We were finally in North America, flying over Canadian airspace. Boston was now just an hour and a half away.

In-flight chicken biriyani!

I found it cumbersome to watch Grey’s Anatomy on my phone while I was having my food, so I turned to the in-flight entertainment system instead, and opted to watch Friends.

This show never gets boring!

Half an hour flew by and we were finally over the United States now. This was when my friend told me that Qatar Airways in partnership with Ooredoo Qatar offered complimentary Wi-Fi for one hour and that we could make use of it now. So I connected to the Wi-Fi and texted family and friends with a wingview picture of the aircraft flying over US airspace. Somehow everyone was online and I spent the last hour of my flight journey texting everyone and checking out Instagram and Facebook.

 

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Hello USA!
 

August 8, 1400 hrs Eastern Standard Time:

Eventually, the announcement was made that the flight had begun its descent. In another few minutes, I could get to see the United States for the first time. The country looked beautiful at first sight! Especially the countryside! With a lot of greenery around,organised residential areas, etc, it was like seeing a Hollywood movie setting in real life.

The aircraft made a loop over rural Massachusetts and proceeded to land in Massachusetts’s capital, Boston. I couldn’t get a glimpse of the city of Boston while the aircraft was landing though, as Boston’s Logan International Airport was situated on a separate piece of land away from the main city. What I did get a glimpse of, however, was of the towns just outside Boston.

 

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Just a few miles north of Boston!
 

Eventually we touched down. I was happy to hit solid ground once again! After 14 long hours!! Also, I finally got to see a little of Boston city. This was also when reality hit me to the fact that I was in the United States of America right now. The airport itself, with brown exteriors, had an old-school feel to it which I liked. It was still hard to believe that I was actually in the United States, even after seeing mostly US-based airlines in the airport like American Airlines, JetBlue, etc.

 

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Finally getting to see these airlines in real life.
 

We taxied to a gate after what took like forever and waited for further instructions. The flight crew instructed that as per US law, the phone should continue to remain switched off/ in flight mode until after customs. This was again a first for me.

After a while, people began to disembark the aircraft. One by one, it seemed to take forever until we could even move out of our seats as we were all seated toward the rear of the aircraft.

I double- and triple-checked to see that I had taken all my belongings, and then went on to exit the aircraft, which had been my home for more than half a day.

Upon entering the airport, we were greeted with various signs of “Welcome to Boston Logan”.

The first step now was to clear immigration. I had no idea what kind of questions would be asked at US immigration, but I was prepared for everything. When my turn came, I was asked about my university and was asked to show my I-20. And then I got the entry stamp; I was now officially in the United States!

Next, I proceeded to the baggage belt. There was a huge crowd at our belt, understandable as it was a Boeing 777 and there would’ve been at least 250 passengers on board. It had been a full flight too!

The baggage came a little slower than usual as all the baggage are checked by Transportation Security Administration first and then released onto the conveyor belt. We waited forever for our bags and I began fearing the worst: that my bags were misplaced.

After a 45 minute wait, we found ours and a few other bags placed separately away from the main conveyor belt. I was more relieved to see all my bags intact to wonder why my baggage had not come in the normal way.

I put all my bags on a trolley and went towards the exit. It wasn’t easy to push 80 kilograms worth of baggage on a single trolley and pushing the trolley with all the weight on it wasn’t easy.

We passed through customs, expecting to get called over for a closer inspection of our baggage as we saw people getting randomly called over for customs inspection. But we weren’t called.

We finally stepped outside to the visitors’ area where a senior friend of ours and my other friend who had arrived by Emirates had been waiting for hours for us.

 

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One of the many “Welcome to Boston” signs you can find all around the arrivals area.
 

I finally stepped out of the airport and proceeded to the Uber/Lyft pick up point. You had to go to one such pickup spot to book your cab.

Our senior friend booked a large Uber and Lyft cabs for us and even that turned out to be insufficient for us and our bags as the laws of Massachusetts were pretty strict regarding how much baggage and persons can be carried by a single cab.

So it was decided that I would come back along with my senior through Boston’s local train network (called simply as the “T” ).

The two of us had to go back to the airport and take a free bus to the Airport Station on the Blue Line of the T.

The Airport Station.

My senior got me something called Charlie Card, which is used to pay for travelling on Boston’s public transport. Following this, we boarded the train to go home.

We had to change at a station called Government Center to get on the Green Line. The Green Line had four branches, and we had to take the “E” branch towards Heath Street. Everything was underground and it was easy to switch lines.

The Green Line train was more like a tram and the train we got in was crowded. Luckily we managed to get a place to sit and I was even lucky to have a window seat. I started watching out the window, a habit I’ve had since childhood.

After a station called Symphony, the train began to rise up to the ground level. And guess what was the first thing I saw?

Northeastern University!!

I couldn’t believe my eyes, I had never expected that I’d get to see my future university on my very first day in the USA.

I looked, wide-eyed in amazement at my senior who was sitting a row behind me. He nodded in agreement.

The train stopped at Northeastern University, which also had a dedicated stop on the Green Line. This was also something I had no idea about.

I managed to click a photo of Northeastern University’s Marino Center, which I later learned was the university gym.

 

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Marino Center, Northeastern University
 

The rest of the train journey was uneventful. We finally got down at Riverway Station, and walked the rest of the way home.

My other friends, who had arrived in the Uber and Lyft cabs, were waiting for us. Together we moved all our bags inside and settled down into our new surroundings, ready to begin a brand new chapter in our lives.

The End.

From Chennai to Boston: Part 1

August 8, 2019 marks the day I flew from Chennai to Boston to pursue my Master’s at Northeastern University.

It was a solid 20-hour flight trip and for someone who was used to only sitting on an aircraft for three hours at once, this was a whole new experience for me. Also, the fact that I would be flying “13,182 kilometres” away from home, as a dear friend quoted in her farewell post for me.

The maximum I’ve flown on an aircraft until then was the 2600 km twice-a-year trip I used to make between Chennai and Muscat!

August 7, 2300 hrs IST:

Me and my friends arrived at the airport as planned, at this time. It was dark outside as I prepared to leave my home, my neighbourhood and my hometown in quick succession. Took one final look at all the surroundings as I sat in the taxi going to the airport. Of course, I also made it a point to go offline and talk to my family!

The 4 of us travelling to Boston!

Upon reaching the airport, reality hit me. I was gonna embark on what would be a life-changing journey. Seeing a crowded international terminal of Chennai airport was something new to me. It low-key reminded me of Chennai Central for some reason! You could see many international travellers, preparing to fly one of the many international airlines to destinations around the world. Thing is, all these airlines take off in the wee hours, so the airport is a jam-packed mess at this time of the day.

August 8, 0030 hrs IST:

After bidding farewell to my family and friends, it was time to get inside the airport. This was hard for me but I tried hard to not cry to avoid making everyone else cry.

I entered the terminal, anxious to see whether Qatar Airways would object to my two pieces of hand baggage.

I was asked to scan all my check-in baggage for which there was a queue. Upon finishing this, I looked at the Qatar Airways counter, which by now had a long queue.

I nervously made my way to the counter, hoping against hope that the person behind the counter wouldn’t ask me to weigh the hand baggage (it’s something that is usually not asked, but I’d heard that if you’re flying to the US, they do).

While I was slowly inching my way towards the check-in counter, I called some of my friends who had stayed up awake till that point just to talk to me. I planned to call some more friends when I’d be done with everything and just sit at the gate, waiting for my flight, but alas, for the first time, I’d eventually end up running out of free time at the airport.

My turn came eventually and a tall man was at the other end of the counter.

Guess what’s the first question he asks me:

“Place your hand baggage on the belt”.

I thought this is it. I’d be asked to remove stuff and place it in my other luggage. I knew my two hand baggage weighed above 10kg in total.

The weighing machine read “12.5kg”.

There were a few seconds of silence.

Until I heard him say “Okay, that’s fine”.

I couldn’t believe my luck and removed my cabin bag and backpack from the belt. Then I proceeded to weigh my 3 check-in bags, which weighed 68.5 kg in total, just half a kilogram below the limit.

I got my bags checked-in and officially got the boarding passes for my long journey.

It was finally happening!

After bidding farewell to my family through the airport glass, I proceeded to Immigration and prepared myself for any question that might come my way.

It ended up going pretty smoothly, considering the fact that I would be travelling to the United States for the first time. The officer asked for my passport and I-20 ( a document issued by American universities to prove that you’re a genuine student admitted to that particular university), and some questions about my life in Muscat after seeing that my passport was issued there.

Next, I went to the security check area, where I was asked to remove my belt, watch, wallet, mobile phones, laptops, phone chargers, and whatnot. Basically, all my valuables were on a tray. Add to the fact that this was peak hours for Chennai International Airport, so the whole area was crowded. I’ve read stories of how things get lost/stolen at these areas, so I felt nervous and vulnerable until I got them back safe and sound. Now I had to check whether I’d taken everything from the tray, and once I was sure I did, I left the area.

Me and my friends looked at the watch and realised that we just had enough time to make it to the gate. However I did manage to squeeze in a bathroom break, and purchased a bottle of water as I knew the importance of staying hydrated on board.

We met a relative of one of my friends travelling on our flight, who was also headed to the United States (though that particular friend was flying on Emirates). I’d later find out that by some sheer coincidence, that person would be my seat neighbour for the first leg of our journey.

August 8, 0235 hrs IST :

The call for boarding had been made, and once again, there was a long queue. Boarding happened in zones, where all the passengers were segregated into 3 zones (based on seat numbers I presume. Just wide-body aircraft things). I happened to be in zone 1 and hence, I was able to finish boarding the aircraft early.

Around this time, I got a call from my best friend in college who was awake till this hour just to wish me all the best. We were talking all the way from when I was standing at the gate up until I actually got inside the aircraft. (a good 15 minutes because as it turned out, there was a long queue for zone 1 alone). I cut the call temporarily to get settled in my seat, and then resumed the call, during which that friend had woken up another friend of ours so that it was a conference call now. The whole situation looked like it was something straight out of a movie! We talked again for another 20 minutes until the aircraft started taxiing towards the runway.

My best friends in college, Prajwal Amar Singh and Rajat Sridhar. Timings are in Boston time.

An aviation geek friend of mine on Instagram replied to my airport stories and asked me to watch out for a rare Singapore Airlines Star Alliance Livery Airbus A330, which was (unluckily for passengers, luckily for spotters like me) delayed by more than 4 hours! As it turned out, the aircraft was right next to ours but on the opposite side to where I was sitting, so I couldn’t get a good glimpse of it, though I did manage to click a few blurry photos of it.

The blurry picture in which the Singapore Airlines aircraft is seen in the background.

I was clicking pictures of aircraft right until our flight made it to the runway about to take off.

August 8, 0345 hrs IST:

Take-off time.

I stopped taking pictures and switched my phone camera to video mode, to capture the take-off, as I normally do.

This time it was different because it would be my last glimpse of India for quite a few months.

As the aircraft flew away from Chennai, I got to see the wonderful sight of Chennai, lit up at night. I don’t remember the last time I got to see this sight.

Chennai at night!

As we moved away from Chennai and the seat-belt signs came off, the menu cards for ordering dinner were handed out. Breakfast was served fairly quickly (as compared to my experiences on Oman Air, lol), and the food itself was on par with Qatar Airways’ great reputation.

The five-star menu of the five-star airline!

After this, I dozed off, keeping an alarm calculating the time it would take for my flight to reach Omani airspace. I’ve seen this exact same flight fly over Muscat a couple of times over the past week (on Flightradar24) and I hoped to catch one last glimpse of the city I spent half of my life in before I began a new chapter in my life.

August 8, 0530 hrs Qatar Time:

Unfortunately, I missed the alarm, and I woke up only to see daylight. The moment I saw daylight outside, I knew I’d missed it. Words couldn’t describe the heartbreak I felt after this as I was really, really looking forward to that moment.

Woke up to see the aircraft starting its descent.

After consoling myself, I looked out to see that we had started our descent towards Doha. It reminded me of my trip to Georgia and Armenia the previous year, as we had an early morning arrival to Doha back then as well.

As if to make up for me missing out on seeing Muscat, my flight made a loop over Doha (as opposed to landing directly) and then aligned itself with the runway to land. Seeing Qatar reminded me of Oman, as there was a lot in common, infrastructure-wise (except for the presence of skyscrapers) between the two countries.

As the aircraft prepared to land, I got a wonderful glimpse of the sea water brilliantly lit by the rising sun, such the water below shined like gold. Probably made sense as we were about to touch down into the world’s wealthiest country.

Early morning wingview!

Eventually we touched down, and our aircraft parked at a remote spot not connected by aerobridges. We had to disembark and reach the airport via the shuttle bus. That reminded me of the good old days at the old Muscat airport, which had no aerobridges at all.

(Continued in part 2)

(Featured Image: A shot of the Boston Skyline clicked by me)

Tbilisi Loves You!

June 11, 2018

We decided to start our 10-day tour of the region leisurely. And hence, we decided to explore Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi, for one full day.

We woke up and got ready unusually late for someone who’s on a tour (mostly because I was lazy and delayed things), but nevertheless, we were ready after having breakfast, standing on the front porch of our hotel by around 10am.

Tbilisi has a plethora of public transport options, but the best option for tourists in my opinion is booking a cab through Yandex. (You can also hail a taxi from the road, but chances are that you’ll get ripped off).

Yandex works similar to Uber and can be called the Soviet equivalent of Uber, since Uber doesn’t have a presence in this part of the world. You can fix your location, see the expected price for your trip, and you can see if a driver has accepted your trip request. Probably the only disadvantage would be the language barrier as many drivers don’t speak English.

My parents and brother had already travelled to Russia two months before this trip, and hence were already well-versed with the app. We decided to start our city tour by checking out the Freedom Square, an important landmark in the city. Located on one end of Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s most prominent street, it has a monument made of granite and gold at the centre of the Square, rising up to 35 metres high. It was built as recently as 2006, to commemorate the freedom of the Georgian nation.

Tbilisi’s Freedom Monument

The Tbilisi City Assembly is right behind you, if you’re standing according to the picture above.

The Tbilisi City Assembly, shot from another angle.

There was a mall, Galleria Tbilisi, nearby. We went there primarily to find a mobile store that would help us activate mobile data on our newly purchased Beeline SIM card. (We’d booked a Yandex cab using the hotel Wi-Fi). Walked straight into one of those Apple Authorized Reseller stores, and we were able to use mobile data in no time.

The shop I’m referring to is on the left.

Notice the weird (but in my opinion, cool) lightings used throughout the mall? It’s a break from the mundane false ceilings we usually see in malls around the world. That’s one thing I loved about this mall.

Not too flashy-looking, not too boring-looking either. That’s my kinda malls.

After some grocery shopping to survive the night (dinner wasn’t complimentary at the hotel we were staying in, so we decided to have some bread, butter and jam for dinner), we left the place. Not before a cute Georgian lady in her twenties probably, pulled us over for one of those touristy “3D photograph” things. This was actually the first thing that happened while we were exploring the mall, and we decided to take a nice family picture and go shopping after that, to give them time to do the 3D printing.

This is the picture in question. Under illumination, the photo would appear clearly! Notice the words “Tbilisi, Georgia” below.

Once we were out of the mall, we decided to walk on the Rustaveli Avenue. As I said before, this street is an important one, and is home to many Georgian government buildings. We went on and on, in search of an Indian restaurant.

(If you’re an Indian traveller to any alien country, the first thing you do is locate all the Indian restaurants present there. If you say you don’t do so, you’re probably lying).

And that’s what we did. With our newfound mobile data, we tracked the location of the restaurant and had a good lunch.

A great place to dine, I’ll admit! The food was great!

After coming out, we decided to book another Yandex to Narikala Fortress, arguably the country’s most well-known landmark. The fortress is located up a hill, so we could only go up by cable car, from the ground. The cable car ride offers a bird’s eye view of the city as you go up.

On top, there was a small street with shops on one end and on the other, you could have a panoramic view of the city.

That “seasoned traveller” look! 😛

One of the many panoramic views that we clicked!!

We walked westwards, and soon came across the Mother Georgia Monument.

These are pretty much the only views you can get, as the statue was facing downwards!

It was around this point, when we were here, that a local tour guide called George, called us over, and promised us to offer better views of the city. Initially we were having trust issues, and he could see that, and then he said in Hindi (!!) “Jaldi Chalo” (Let’s go). That somehow made him look a little trustworthy in our eyes. And after this, we decided to go along with him and squeezed into his tiny Nissan Tiida.

He took us to Mtatsminda Park, which is another place you must visit while you’re in Tbilisi.

Perks of being a tour guide experienced with photo angles: You get some cringey but amazing shots like these! Shot by him just in front of the entrance.

After paying the entry fees, we were in. The park was more than just a park, it had a few rides and all, but what caught my attention was a tiny “Wax Museum” featuring wax models of famous regional and world personalities. More like a run-down version of Madame Tussauds.

With Joseph Stalin. Y’all might probably know him as a Soviet dictator, but did you know that he’s Georgian by origin? Whether he’s Georgia’s most famous or infamous person is up for debate, but let’s not get into that for now.

With former US President George W Bush. Believe it or not, there’s a major street in Tbilisi named after him!

After we were done, we proceeded to explore the rest of the park. One of Mtatsminda Park’s biggest selling points is the beautiful views it offers of the city, from more than one point.

The Tbilisi TV Tower, the city’s main landmark, as viewed from Mtatsminda Park. This is something that can be viewed from nearly every corner of the city, so we were lucky to get up so close to it!

I actually lost track of how many different aerial views I got of Tbilisi in a single day.

We went to another side of the park, to…guess what…get another aerial view!!

George on the left and my family to the right of him. If you’re an avid photographer/blogger, you’ll always be the last person in your group to leave a particular spot! And run like crazy to catch up with the others.

This particular view was I guess the best of all. Offered a 180 degree view of the whole city. And to my delight, I could see flights approaching the airport in the distance. Overall, it was a really great way to spend your evening!!

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Don’t you agree that this is the best view of the city?

They say all good things have to come to an end. And so we eventually had to leave.

This was shot on our way back..I could’ve stayed there forever and probably admired the night view as well…but the daylight hours are long in this part of the world and we had to go home as well.

On our way back, these funky looking house props caught my eye. I don’t know the true purpose of these buildings, but I assume it was mostly for decorative reasons. Because I can’t imagine calling one of these buildings as home!! (Though it may not be such a bad idea after all)

Colourful funky houses.

Just before getting into George’s car, I noticed a BMW with Armenian number plates. I never thought I’d get to see one in Georgia. (Though the border with Armenia lies just about 100km south of Tbilisi).

Armenia may not be a rich country, but they have one of the oldest cultures on Earth. More on it when I “take” you along there.

George dropped us off where he picked us up, and we finally found someone to take us along to the countryside in the coming days. So far he seemed to be a nice and friendly soul. We got his phone number and planned the itinerary for the next day. After goodbyes, we proceeded to leave the place. The sun was just going down at that point of time. But the local time was already 8pm!! For someone who’s spent his entire life in the tropical latitudes, your mind does get messed up if you rely on daylight alone to determine the time of the day, when you arrive at countries located up north.

Took a photo just to prove this. And yeah, for some reason, even though Georgia and Armenia are located further west than Dubai or Muscat, they all share the same time zone. (GMT +4)

It was after this picture that I took one of my personal favourites to this day.

My all-time favourite sunset picture. And one of my most liked photos on Instagram. Can you see the TV tower?

We went down the cable car and left the beautiful hillside behind. Now we were in Rike Park,which, in the twilight hours, looked more beautiful than ever. Unfortunately, since I took too many photos uphill, my phone battery died as soon as we reached there 😦

The beautiful view of the hill from Rike Park. Unedited with no filter.

Next on our list was the Bridge of Peace, which was a foot-over-bridge constructed above the Mtkvari river, purely as a tourist attraction. They’ve done a darn good job at it, because it was really beautiful and well-shaped. Especially the lights at night!

A bridge that lived up to its name.

Front view.

Near here, we decided to end this day by going on a boating trip on the Mtkvari. It was a little on the expensive side for a boat trip but the views it offered were totally worth it.

One last picture of this place.

Narikala Fortress in its full glory.

Following this, we booked a Yandex to go back to our hotel. The driver, a middle-aged bespectacled man, didn’t understand English and to our shock, hadn’t heard of our hotel at all! (Even though it was a Ramada Encore). What followed was a few tense minutes of locating the damn hotel, and we ended up missing it on our first try. We had to make another loop and approach the hotel, with me showing the Google Maps and making him navigate accordingly, through I don’t remember what kind of communication we had. End of story, we reached the hotel safe and sound and I wasn’t more happy to do so!! (Though the taxi guy was genuinely

just a normal guy who hadn’t heard of the place and didn’t understand English). We ended the day with bread butter and jam that we had purchased earlier and retired for the night, ready for a whole new day of travel ahead.


 

Wondering what’s the story behind the caption of this post? Well, it’s the name of the public Wi-Fi offered throughout the capital city. It’s also the tourist slogan of Tbilisi. This was my first experience connecting to a public free Wi-Fi, and though, expectedly, it was slow, it was a nice experience nevertheless!

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Single people be like “Okay, someone loves me!”

Stay tuned to know more about the rest of our trip!

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