For an average person working in the IT industry, United States of America is also known as Onsite. And this average IT industry person wants to be onsite, preferably permanently 😉. This involves a lot of discussions with the higher management and might include pleading and scrambling and clawing and every other tactic in the book. Anyways, once in the US you will appreciate the place. After all it claims to be the number 1 country, the super power and the leader of the World. What’s not to like, right?
Well there are certain things you might not like, for instance the flying time to the US from India. Pretty long and totally exhausting! So much so that I have written two blogs on this helping you with what you should carry and what you should do on long flights!
Typically, my travelogues start with a few basics about the place but there isn’t any basic information that you don’t already have about the US, thanks to Hollywood movies and TV series’. So mine was an official trip and I stayed in Los Altos which is one of the most expensive neighborhoods of the Silicon Valley. Los Altos is where the CEOs, CFOs, Angel Investors and Business Owners live. Sundar Pichai lives there too!
1. Visa Process
Let’s begin with the most tedious and random visa processes I have ever seen! B1/B2 is a visa that grants multiple entries to the US for up to 10 years and to obtain that you need to carry a sh*tload of documents and travel to any of the US consulates. They are situated in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad. Once there, you need to get your biometrics done and then an interview. The interview is what makes this process super-random as the firangi interviewing you may or may not grant a visa on his prerogative
PS – You cannot carry your phone in the consulate which means it is not possible to book an Ola/Uber after you are done. The autos will thus charge in lacs!
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2. Currency Exchange
First up, here’s my blog on the best way to get foreign exchange. Needless to say, DO NOT (under any circumstances) exchange at the airports. As compared to other currencies, USD buy and sell rates will be much closer to the market values which is definitely a plus. USDs is what a typical international airport accepts (in addition to the local currency) which is an exhibit of the power of this currency. And this also means that if you end up with some extra dollars after your trip it can always be used for your future international travels
3. The LONG Journey
Who likes long everlasting journeys? Definitely not me! No matter how comfortable your flight is, jet lag is the real deal. In my words, jet lag is the state where you are in the US but your body still runs on India time. So you might not be able to sleep all night and feel sleepy the entire day.
But let’s park jet lag aside. While you are on the flight you will be served food multiple times, so much so that you will lose track of whether you’re having breakfast, lunch or dinner. And it doesn’t really matter as well because the time zone you land into will anyways screw everything up. Our Indian brethren will be busy with alcohol during the entire flight (only if it’s free). Why you ask, well here’s why!
If you wish to use the washroom in the flight, oh well, you wish you didn’t have to use the washroom in the flight and save yourselves from the endless queues!
The best thing about my emirates flight though was free wifi. Internet will be mostly slow because it makes use of the network from the satellites in the Earth’s orbit. It is no match to your airtel broadband connection but it’s still pretty cool to be able to tweet mid-air or whatsapp your loved ones. What’s even cooler is the realization of how ‘The Economist’ articles keep you abreast with what’s happening in the World ~ I read about inflight internet and how it works for the first in an Economist article ~
It was pretty cold since my visit was in December. I was also told that it rains in the Bay Area during that time. The cold is much worse as you go up North in the US. Better pack all your woolens, gloves and headgear if you are visiting during the winters. Oh and December is when you will be hearing “Last Christmas I gave you my heart” pretty much everywhere you go
5. Wait… What?
Probably the first thing you would notice (at least I did) was the inconvenient measurement system America uses. I always knew they use miles and pounds but being there is when it becomes an annoyance. The only 3 countries in the World that haven’t adopted International System of Units (or metric system) are Burma, Liberia and USA. So pounds, miles, gallons, ounces is what you are dealing with here. These do not have the World standard measurement base of 10. Now here’s why it gets cringeworthy as an outsider – When you want to buy something and it says $2 for 8.5 FL OZ, you just cannot calculate the per liter cost without completely blanking out. 1 FL OZ (fluid ounce) is 29.5735 ML. So that’s what you are dealing with 😏. Same goes for making sense of distance for a place that is 2 miles away. A mile is 1.60934 km!
You may also notice the homeless folks living on the streets. I surely did because I didn’t notice a single homeless person on my recent trip to Dubai. It makes you wonder why the role model of democracy and an advanced economy like the US faces poverty when a nouveau-riche monarchy of Dubai has none of it. Probably because Dubai would deport the poor and pay the Emiratis enough even if they were jobless. Not suggesting monarchy over democracy, but just saying.
Here’s another thing I noticed. If your order is paid for online, Amazon drops the package at your doorstep. That’s it. No calls from the delivery boy, no coordinating of whether or not you are available at home, none of that BS. I always wondered how would drones deliver without being robbed but I guess I got my answer. Imagine the doorstep delivery in India 😁
Except for downtown areas of San Francisco, San Jose and probably some other areas/cities in the Silicon Valley, you won’t really see high rise buildings. One of the biggest reasons for that, I figure, is no shortage of land in the US. The population is ~32 crore and USA is the 4th largest country in the World in terms of area.
An infrastructure marvel of sorts is the Golden Gate bridge of San Francisco (Video of Reaching Golden Gate and a view from the other side). I won’t bore you with the architecture specifics but it’s definitely a must visit place especially considering how less ‘must visit’ places there actually are in the bay area 😉. Fisherman’s Wharf is famous for street shopping. It is certainly worth a try. You can grab many souvenirs to bring back home. There is also a ferry ride from the nearby Pier 39 that goes around the Golden Gate Bridge and the Alcatraz island (as featured in the movie The Rock). Here’s a video of the ferry ride. I am pretty sure there is a ferry that takes you to the Alcatraz island from one of the other piers.
Union Square is another place to give a try. Union Square is to San Francisco what Brigade Road is to Bangalore. There you have it, don’t you just love my analogies? 😁 Downtown San Jose is the same thing of sorts. Silicon Valley, as the name implies, is full of HQs of IT companies and their infrastructure can be fantasizing for those with a job in the IT industry. I went to the Apple Store in their Cupertino Campus that has a model of the campus with a bit of Augmented Reality thrown in the mix (Video).
7. Local Transport
Since I am throwing all these San Franciscos, Palo Altos, San Joses and Cupertinos you might be thinking that getting around within the Bay Area would be easy. It’s the exact opposite! There is a two storey Caltrain that connects these cities but within the city the local transport is almost zilch (video of the caltrain ride). You can get bikes but how to get them could be confusing and time consuming. Buses and trams are all there but for a newbie in the town they are always too complex to comprehend. Then there is uber. It’s expensive but that’s the only convenient option you have.
While we are at uber, you could a bit surprised about how most of the drivers aren’t really full time drivers. They are all folks with jobs driving uber as a side hustle. The traffic discipline is an Indian’s dream come true. Cars follow lane discipline, stop for pedestrians, let fellow car drivers pass first and honk only when they feel like swearing (which is pretty rare). But comparing that with India is a bit of a stretch. America’s population is ~32 crores, add a 100 crore and then we’ll talk.
But overall my conclusion is that the Silicon Valley is not at all tourist friendly when it comes to local transport.
8. Subcontinent Diaspora in the Silicon Valley
Where’s our fellow American-accent-swanking, green-card-seeking, dreaming-of-at-least-once-dating-a-firangi Indians at, you ask? Probably at Macy’s 😁
Macy’s is a shopping chain and I am told it usually offers discounts. Costco and Walmart are the Big(ger) Bazaars. It’s actually quite difficult not to buy stuff while in the US. Also, as opposed to what you might believe, some of the stuff is actually cheaper in the US than India – clothes, electronics, shoes from some popular brands are among them. It might also come in as a surprise that you will get change down to one cent at the billing counter (sometimes thru automated machines). Apple store gave me a change of 70 cents! Back home we won’t even expect that.
Food might be one thing you could end up struggling with. For vegetarians, it’s a nightmare. Even if you are a non-vegetarian the excessive availability of Beef and Pork might turn you off. Halal is a different kettle of fish altogether.
The bay area was also one such place where I felt the Chinese outnumbered the Indians. There is a Chinese food outlet in the Stanford University cafeteria. That’s the only non-American food outlet there by the way.
9. Final Thoughts
Since mine was an official visit, I am a bit intertwined between looking at the entire experience from the perspective of a tourist or from the perspective of someone working there. As a tourist, the Silicon Valley isn’t really worth spending Lacs. But it could be different for someone working in the valley towards achieving the American Dream.
The American Dream is a set of ideals like Democracy, Rights, Liberty, Opportunity and Equality. Barack Obama (who comes from a black minority community) became the President of the United States, that is what the American Dream stands for. Anyone with the right skills has the opportunity to make it in the US and I found that to be quiet true.
But just to give you another point of view, let me suggest that it is much easier said than done. Try getting a visa for the purpose of seeking a job in the US. I doubt a visa for that even exists. If that isn’t enough, ask the folks with a dependent visa (typically the better halves of those already working in the US) on the issues they face. The American Dream is a good dream to dream but requires significant sacrifices in a country of strangers that is 20 hours of flying and 12 hours of time zone away from your land and your people. End of the day, it all comes down to what you perceive to be more valuable.
Silicon Valley Travelogue Playlist –