From Ashok Nagar to Atlanta and back!

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I work for a private online tutoring company. Recently, they sponsored my trip to the U.S to conduct a session Georgia_World_Congress_Center_from_Northside_Avein an international conference – NECC 2007 (National Educational Computing Conference) that was held from June 24 to June 27, 2007 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia. My trip lasted 11 days and this article is my attempt at writing a detailed travelogue. I am taking the effort to write this long travelogue with the belief that it will inspire my readers in some way and certainly be of some interest to them.

How it all began
The key is to remember that opportunity knocks only once on your door. So we must be alert enough to open the door and grab the opportunity with both hands when we hear the first knock. That’s what I did.
My boss announced one day, that all managers should present a paper in an international conference, as part of the ‘brand-building’ initiative. I pounced on this opportunity and shared this goal with my team members.
Immediately, Balachandiran (one of my team members) did a google search and found out about the National Educational Computing Conference to be held in Atlanta from June 24 to June 27th 2007.
Note here, the benefit of involving your team in whatever you do and learn. One of the secrets of success is in implementing the common-sensical knowledge that more brains are always better than one. So it’s always better to work in groups on any task. The mere sharing of information about the need to participate in an international conference led to the discovery of a suitable conference in seconds. If I had not shared this information with my team and tried to work on my own, I am sure I would not have discovered about this conference on time, since my googling skills are not so good.
But the deadline for submitting the paper was only 4 days away! I hurriedly asked my boss, whether I can go ahead and apply, and his green signal came about a day before the deadline!
While the others gave up, I pursued it and wrote to the conference organizers if I could be given some extra time. To my surprise, they agreed!
So here, my ‘Never say die’ attitude helped me. One must never give up. One needs to develop this tenacity to achieve anything worthwhile in life! This tenacity is what helped me to find my true love too (well, that’s another long story and I’ll have to write a book to tell you that story!)!
I explored the various options in the conference website and finally decided that the ‘Open Source-Lab’ was my best bet.
My boss had introduced me to Mind Maps a week back and Vijaykumar (my colleague) had taught me the basics of Freemind. So it seemed to be an interesting Open-Source software with immense use for educators and students. So I quickly prepared the proposal, and mailed it to the conference people.
A few months later, I got the good news that the proposal had been accepted!

My travel experience
Those who know me will tell you that I hardly know ANY place in Chennai and that I can’t go ANYWHERE on my own (except of course, from home to office and back). So, I consider it quite an achievement that I managed to go from Ashok Nagar (in Chennai, India) to Atlanta (in Georgia, USA) and back in one piece, all alone!
I had seen ‘Unnale Unnale’ (a tamil movie) a few weeks before my departure and I had started dreaming and wondering whether I would be lucky enough to have a gorgeous girl sitting next to me in the International flight from Mumbai to Atlanta, so that I could spend the 14 odd hours in the flight, roasting peanuts with her (just as it happened for the hero in that movie). Alas! While going to Atlanta, an OLD LADY (definitely 65+) sat next to me and while coming back from New York to Mumbai, another OLD LADY (50+) sat next to me. So that washed out my dreams of experiencing ‘Unnale Unnale’ during this trip!
But hey! I did meet Trisha (a gorgeous Tamil actress) in the passport office (when I went to apply for the passport), though I couldn’t talk to her, since Mr. Chakrapani (one of my bosses with an imposing personality) was with me and I was scared that he wouldn’t approve of me losing focus from the ‘objective’ of our visit to the passport office.
Since I had already flown before when I went to Ahmedabad via Mumbai (for my workshop on ‘Theory of Constraints for Improving Education’ at IIM, Ahmedabad), the takeoff and landings did not have the same thrilling effect on me this time. It made me wonder at how soon one gets used to the most fascinating and beautiful sights ever – flying above the clouds, watching the city lights appearing like streams of molten lava, the mixture of colours during sunset and sunrise, watching the Moon from ABOVE, for a change! But I did see something special – A FULL CIRCULAR RAINBOW! Some time after takeoff from the John F. Kennedy airport at New York, when the ground was still visible and the plane was flying at around cloud level and the sky was relatively clear, I saw the circular rainbow. It lasted for around 30 seconds and then disappeared and then again appeared after a few seconds. It was an extremely beautiful sight and I immediately thought of ‘her’ and wished that I could share this sight with her and see her reaction of awe and wonder. Unfortunately, I was told that photography or filming is prohibited during flight and so I didn’t want to try it.
On the way to Atlanta, I finished reading ‘The Mind Map Book’ by Tony Buzan. I didn’t watch the free movies that one can watch on the tiny TV attached to the back of every seat. I did that while returning and watched almost 4 English movies, Shooter being one of them (I forgot the rest!).
I found the Indian air hostesses much more prettier than their American counterparts. American actresses look good only on screen, but Indian beauties look good both on screen and in person. Well, that’s just my personal observation and I don’t intend to offend any American readers!
I thoroughly enjoyed the meals that were offered during the flights in Jet Airways and Delta airlines.
I got sick of the security checks at the airports by the time I got back home. I had to go in queue, and even remove my shoes, socks and belts to put them through the scanner. The immigration check and customs check were all fairly straightforward though, since one just had to follow the directions that were on display in prominent places.
It was fairly easy to just follow the crowd after the plane landed, and collect the baggage. In U.S, I was surprised to find out that I had to feed three dollar bills into a machine to be able to use the trolley. In Indian currency that amounts to Rs 120! Whereas in Indian airports, the use of trolleys is free! So, while Indians are being so hospitable to foreigners and their own people, the Americans are not being so generous!

About MARTA
To manage my travel needs economically during my stay in Atlanta, I had booked into a hotel that provided free shuttle (cab) service to and from the airport 24 hrs a day. The main attractions in Atlanta can be reached by the MARTA (electric train) service which is very frequent and not at all crowded. We, in India can learn a lot from the efficiency of the MARTA service and should try to implement it in India. MARTA is an underground transport system (though it also runs above ground) by train. The trains are automated and the doors open and close automatically and detect the presence of passengers in front of the doors. ALL the compartments in the MARTA train are air-conditioned, unlike in the trains in India, where the air conditioned compartments are called First Class and cost a LOT more to board. It struck me that this has another advantage – the passengers cannot throw garbage out of the windows, since the windows are all sealed. The seats are made of some smooth plastic-like material that is quite comfortable and must be surely very easy to clean and maintain and very long-lasting and durable. Again, I couldn’t help comparing these seats with the seats in the buses and trains in India, with the cotton and cloth which either get soaked and dirty or invariably get torn in due course of time.
I purchased a 4-day pass which allowed me to travel by MARTA any number of times for 4 days. Thus, to reach the Georgia World Congress Center from my hotel, all I had to do was to reach the airport by the hotel-shuttle (free) and from there, reach the GWCC by MARTA. The same steps could be reversed to take me back to my hotel room at the end of the day.

Stranded in New York
On the way back, the flight from Dallas to New York arrived late. Even after arriving an hour late, the plane remained on the runway and was not given permission to move to the arrival/departure gate because another plane had skidded off the runway earlier and so some repair work was going on. So, for no fault of mine, I missed my connecting flight to Mumbai which was scheduled to depart at 10:30 pm that day. When I finally reached the departure gate, it was 12:30 a.m. and the area was deserted, except a couple of officers. There were a few more flustered passengers like me who had missed their connecting flights. So I stood in the queue and finally got booked into another flight, but it would depart same time next day. When I requested for hotel accommodation, those officers refused, saying that it was not their fault that I missed the flight. No amount of requesting helped. They were extremely rude and callous and unhelpful.
I tried to go out and stay in a hotel for the night. But the airports are so HUGE in USA that one just can’t reach any place by walking. I was scared that I might oversleep in the hotel if I check into one and miss my next flight, or some unforeseen problem may crop up, and so I decided to just wait it out in the airport. I took up position on a bench and sat in meditation, practicing awareness of my body sensations. I was in no mood to read a book, since I was tired. Soon it became daytime, and my stomach started rumbling. But there was no food stall in sight. By the time it was 10:30am, another passenger in a business suit saw my haggard expression and enquired what was the problem. When he heard that I was not given a hotel accommodation, he became furious and immediately took me to an officer (the one who gives the ticket) and demanded an explanation. That lady responded by saying that someone else was in-charge and that she would call her. That someone never turned up, and by then this samaritan had to board his flight. So I was once again alone with my rumbling stomach. Then I overheard someone talking about another terminal at the airport which was full of food stalls and like a shopping mall. I decided to go there. After some investigation I discovered that one had to go there by train! America and its HUGENESS! How I began to appreciate the crowded and small cities of India then!
I comfortably passed the day in this terminal and made it back to the correct terminal on time to board my connecting flight to Mumbai after spending more than 24 hrs at the airport without a wink of sleep.

Stuff stolen from my baggage
When I collected my baggage at the Mumbai airport, I was shocked to find both my checked-in baggages half-empty. I suspect that the theft happened when my baggage spent the extra day at the New York airport. I lost all the sugar-free drinks that I had been carrying for my boss’s parents. I lost my new HP laptop bag (luckily I had the laptop in my carry-on bag) along with all the laptop accessories like mouse and adaptor. I lost the kitchen knife that I had bought for my mom. No point making a list of the stolen items and boring you with the details.
When I filed the complaint, the Delta Airlines authorities refused to reimburse me for the loss of electronic items. So I only got reimbursed for the food items that I lost.
Lesson to learn from this: Lock your checked-in baggage using a special lock that is approved by the U.S security. Do not have stuff in your check-in baggage except useless stuff like old clothes and shoes. Carry all your precious stuff in the carry-on baggage. A separate Laptop bag is not counted as carry-on baggage. So you can store a lot of stuff in the laptop bag as well, in addition to the carry-on baggage.

On returning to India, I had jetlag and slept for 3 days before I could get used to Indian timings.
All in all the trip from Ashok Nagar to Atlanta and back was a great learning experience for me and now I have the confidence that I can travel anywhere around the world on my own. I got fed up of the frequent security checks at the airports though.

In Atlanta
I reached the hotel quite easily and ordered a vegetarian pizza, which I managed to finish only after 3 days!
The NECC 2007 Conference
The next day (Sunday), I explored the layout of the conference venue – Georgia World Congress Centre, which is the fourth largest conference hall in the world. It has 5 levels and spans 3 buildings. The basement has a HUGE exhibition hall spanning the area of 4 football grounds! That’s where more than 150 companies (including Google, Tutorvista, Brainpop) put up their stalls.
More than 150 sessions were happening at the same time through out the day during the 4 days! So one had to pick and choose the sessions one wanted to attend. We could use the ‘Conference Planner’ software to do this. The venue had wireless internet and so I could use my laptop.
My SessionĀ 
My session was for 1 hr. The 40 seats with laptops had been occupied and 10 more had brought their own laptops. After a lot of difficulty and with our software expert(back home in India)’s help (he had to instruct the network expert in Atlanta via Skype, how to install the Freemind software in all the systems!), I had managed to get the Freemind software installed in all the 40 systems, just before my session was due to start.
My session was telecast live (audio only) via skype and Rethnaganesh, Chaitanya and Mathew(they are my colleagues) heard my session. Unfortunately, I forgot to switch on the voice recorder that was in my pocket and so couldn’t record my session.
Since I already had experience addressing a huge audience (over 300 at the IIM auditorium), I didn’t have any stage-fright. My strategy for addressing intimidating and highly distinguished audiences is to imagine that they don’t know anything and that I know everything. I also feel a deep love for the audience and develop a strong desire to share my knowledge with them and help them get rid of their ignorance. This may sound a very proud and haughty approach, but it has always proved effective in helping me to overcome stage fright and to strike a rapport with the audience. Another key point is to be an absolute master of the subject you’re going to cover in the session. Only then your confidence will be true and not appear hollow. Audiences can easily detect it if you’re not confident. Then of course, you should have a bright smile and start with a joke to break the ice with the audience.
This is where I failed miserably with the U.S. audience. I didn’t want to take the risk of attempting a joke that would fall flat and put me in an embarrassing situation. So my session was serious all through and it became a bit of a monologue, since I had jammed in too much stuff to be covered in the session. When I asked whether they were following me, they all nodded their heads and a few asked a few questions. Since I didn’t have any assistants, I couldn’t leave my system and check their work during the session. When my session ended, they all clapped and that was it! I could make out that I failed to strike the rapport with the audience and I couldn’t create the usual buzz at the end of my session. After observing the sessions of other speakers, I realized that the audience probably found my accent hard to follow. They also missed the humour element in my session and so probably switched off frequently during my session.
Anyway, it was certainly a great learning experience. The next two days, I attended the other sessions. By the way, the conference was all about how to apply technology to improve education – for students, teachers and administrators. The keynote speeches happened in the Murphy’s auditorium which seats over 3000 people! I was especially impressed by the speech of futurist Andrew Zolli. He could make all 3000 laugh and cry exactly when he wanted. Such control of such a huge and diverse audience is seen to be believed.
Another keynote speech that impressed me a lot is that of a school principal, Dr. Tyson. He promised to put up the best project on the school website and that spurred his students to work extra time, during the summer holidays and come up with the best possible projects. His students (5th graders) have made movies on various topics under themes like ‘Making our world a better place’. So the message for us to take from him is that if we can make the students understand that their voice is also important and that we value their thoughts, they’ll feel more responsible and will surprise us with their ideas and contributions.

Sightseeing in Atlanta
In Atlanta, I visited ‘Underground Atlanta’ – an underground shopping mall and ‘Stone Mountain’ – the world’s largest granite rock. At ‘Stone Mountain’, I watched a 4-d movie! Let me give you an example of what the 4th dimension of the movie was – in the last scene of the movie, the dog lifted its hind leg to pee, and the jet of ‘water’ landed on my face!
The visit to the Stone Mountain was part of the conference package that I had registered. I befriended a British lady in the bus and we enjoyed the Stone Mountain tour together. We visited a museum that had old relics like the guns, swords and jewelleries used by the natives and the British conquerors. The Stone Mountain has a huge sculpture of 3 horse riders that is quite impressive. We also visited a theme park called crossroads that had a wax shop that sold candles in beautiful shapes, some of them that looked like real flowers.

My stay at my Boss’ home in Dallas
After the conference, I stayed in my boss’s home in Dallas for 3 days. I got a lot of valuable tips on good parenting by observing my boss and his wife handling their cute and adorable 5 year old daughter. They didn’t melt and accede to her every wish. They were firm with her about basic discipline like brushing the teeth first thing after waking up in the morning, etc.
In an attempt to keep her busy(5 year olds can never be idle!), I started by telling her the story of ‘Haroun and the sea of stories’ by Salman Rushdie – a fairy tale which I had read many years ago and forgotten mostly. So, I had to stop soon, since I couldn’t remember the details. Then I switched to drawing pictures on her magnetic slate. Initially, she too tried drawing the pictures, but soon she found something more interesting – erasing the drawing as I drew! Soon, I got bored of this and we switched to playing football. Then she came up with the idea of playing hide and seek. That’s when I came to the difficult part! She would go and hide behind the door and I was supposed to slowly peek behind the door and ‘find’ her. Then her joy at being discovered would know no bounds and she would jump and dance with happiness! But the game wouldn’t just end there! She would again hide behind the SAME door and I would again have to discover her in the same way and she would scream with the same delight again! And this would have to apparently continue forever, since she was not going to find this boring or tiring! But we grownups will certainly find it hard to maintain the same enthusiasm for anything so repetitive! Anyway, her parents soon came to my rescue and diverted her attention with something else!

Sightseeing in Dallas
While in Dallas, my boss took me to the famous shopping malls where we purchased chocolates, scented candles, and shampoo. The shopping malls in U.S are HUGE. I don’t have the energy to describe the HUGENESS of the shopping malls in U.S.
We visited IKEA, which is a ‘shop’ that sells furniture. It is amazing in the sense that the furniture is displayed in the customized ‘setting’. Whatever we decide to purchase(no matter how big, even a cupboard!), can then be disassembled and packaged into a box that can be carried in a car!
We even went to a movie – ‘Live Free Die Hard’ starring Bruce Willis. I was extremely surprised when the movie ended without an interval in between! The theatre was not even half-full and the quality of the sound and picture was comparable to the best theaters in India (or maybe, I should say it the other way round!).

My impression about U.S
I found it TOO HUGE, TOO NEAT and TOO CLEAN. I felt like the ‘village rat’ that felt ‘out of place’ in the ‘city’. I am used to Indian cities like, Chennai, Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai. I like the crowds, the dirt, the noise, the pollution, the hustle and bustle and the commotion. In the U.S, the silence was eerie! The air was so fresh and pure! The roads were so wide and flat and long, that one could see the horizon in front, while driving on the roads! The human touch was minimal in U.S. You can get most food items by inserting dollar bills in the vending machines. Even in the HUGE shopping malls, we can collect the items in trolleys, and get the bills by showing the items in front of a bar-code machine.
I also felt like something was missing in the U.S air. It, well, just didn’t feel like home!
I am so glad to be back home, with my people!
I encourage everyone to seize your opportunities and travel around the world and visit foreign countries, since such experiences will surely widen your mental horizon.
I am extremely grateful to my company for sponsoring my trip to U.S. Words are just not going to be enough to thank my company and all those who have made this trip possible for me!

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