The 5-Minute Games

Gaming. The one thing most people having access to a computer have done at some point in their lives. Sure, it might have been an old-school game on your Pentium 3 machine (Aladdin! Hercules?); or perhaps a soul-sucking (in a good way), addictive Grand Theft Auto title; or one of the N first-person shooter titles based on World War 2 (yes, Call of Duty – I’m looking at you).

It used to be different. You needed to pay attention to the game. From hearing the development rumors, anticipating the release, buying or ahem … borrowing the game, and then making it the sole purpose of life for a few weeks, to feeling empty once the game was over – used to be an experience.

Nostalgia :-(

Nostalgia 😦

Enter smartphones. From the moment Apple opened its App Store for third-party developers in 2008, gaming got a new dimension. Was it the first time we saw good games on a mobile phone? Hell no! Snake was one of the most addictive, challenging, and satisfying games of its time. Nokia N-series phones had some decent games. What changed, then?

A new class of games was born. One that took casual gaming to new levels. One that didn’t require to pay much attention to the game. Games that became a part of your daily routine; ones you played for months or years without realizing! Angry Birds, you say? Cut The Rope! No. Not those. Not games where there is a definite objective and you have level after level of the same.

I’m talking about Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga, Farmville etc. You have most likely played (or heard of) at least one of these. Titles that appeared on the app store as simple, ‘time-wasting’ games, have made their studios millions.

What makes these games tick? The fact that you have to play them in ‘small bites’; logging in at least once a day? And the fact that you have to buy in-game items to progress faster? Wouldn’t that make you want to play the game less?

Patience is a (money-saving) virtue. Image: Clash of Clans

Patience is a (money-saving) virtue.
Image: Clash of Clans

If a friend of mine said to me ‘Dude, you need to play this mobile game. To complete the objectives and reach a high level is going to take you months!’, I’ll proceed to ask him about the substance he has been smoking recently. But maybe that is why these games have become so successful. Let me explain.

To become a ‘l33t’ player or a professional gamer in any traditional computer game requires one to put in massive hours at an age where your reflexes are at an all-time high, and your parents’ patience at an all time low. Kids have given up education, dropped out, and done all sorts of things to become world-beaters at the game of their choice. And if you’re thinking that’s horrible for their financial future, Sumail Hassan, a 16 year-old Pakistani-American won more than $1.1 million a couple of months ago by winning the fifth DOTA 2 international tournament.

But that’s not a requirement on these mobile games! Most of them have a ‘freemium’ business model, where you can play the full game for free, but there is some time restriction – forcing you to come back to the game at regular intervals. Want to get to the top in a couple of days? Spend a few hundred dollars, and you could become the best in the world! Of course, you may say that the number of people who can spend such a ridiculous amount of money on a mobile game are few. And I agree with you. So what about us mortals?

If the game forces you to wait to play more, you wait. Can’t attack with your armies yet? No problem. Cannot harvest your crops just yet? Not able to update your base defenses for another day and a half? No worries. The casual gamer doesn’t really care. And so we keep playing these games for a surprisingly long time! Months, even years! Sure, it’s never more than five or ten minutes per day, but still. How many things can you decide to do for five minutes every day, and then follow through for six months straight?

Of course, not all of these freemium games are successful. Some of them appear to be money-grabbing apps that don’t deliver (I’m looking at you, Roller Coaster Tycoon Mobile!). But successful ones have changed the way people look at mobile gaming.

Will these games stand the test of time? Who knows. But for the moment, they’re here to stay on our iPhones and Galaxys.

Which mobile games do you play regularly?


Thanks for reading! 🙂 Do spread the word if you like what you see!

P.S. – You’ve got to try Boom Beach. What an amazing game!

Advertisements

Book Review: The Martian

“I’m pretty much fucked.”
“That’s my considered opinion.”

That’s how the book begins. He’s right. Getting stuck on a planet all by yourself is bad enough. And then there’s the complete lack of communication. And the fact that a rescue mission will not happen till another four years. Welcome to Mars!


Reviewing this book is easy: You’ve got to read it! Take time off work, cancel Netflix for a month; do whatever it takes, read it!

I’ll clear it upfront: I’m late on the bandwagon. The Martian was a New York Times bestseller in 2014, and is now a Ridley Scott movie starring Matt Damon! But anyways, here goes the review.

The Read

The Martian is a very easy read. Thanks to the fact that most of the books consists of log entries by the stranded astronaut Mark Watney. The first person monologues really help reader get into Watney’s shoes (or space suit). The epic battle for survival on a hostile planet is captured very well by the technical details of the solutions as well as the (high level) math behind them. Wait a minute – technical details? Math??

Yes, since the book is ‘hard’ (no time travel, infinite-fuel engines etc) Science Fiction, the author takes very few liberties with the technical aspects of the story. Does it feel a little daunting at times? Maybe. Does it make you stop turning the pages like a maniac? Nope! Which brings us to the non-technical aspect of the book.

There are only a handful of characters; no romantic or familial relationships, or other emotional aspects in the story. Okay, maybe some, but not much. And yet that doesn’t get in the way of making the reader root, pine and even pray for the protagonist. How? Probably due to the super-focused motive of the protagonist: survival. That’s it. Survival on a hostile planet, facing new challenges one after the other. Survival – the most natural thing for any life form.

And the book is really funny! Given the circumstances the protagonist is in, it is hard to imagine how story could do well on the humor front; but trust me, you’ll get quite a few laughs out of it. Mark Watney’s wit, sarcasm, and outright insane thoughts make for some incredible moments in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation.

The Martian

The Impact

Finishing the book felt very satisfying. In a world filled with stories having complex plots, an increasing number of of gray characters, hidden motives, political/philosophical undertones, The Martian was a refreshing change. It was like an intense rollercoaster where you know the ride is going to end safely (most probably), but the experience is going to be to be epic and scary.

NASA has a big role to play in the story, as you can probably imagine. They seem to be glad that the book has revived public interest in manned space missions. And that it would, in turn, prompt the US Congress to increase NASA’s declining budget.

The amount of research the author, Andy Weir, has put into space programs is clearly visible. Hell, the (former) software engineer wrote a program to help him calculate the space trajectories accurately! The technical details of Watney’s ingenious solutions are very satisfying. They’re just the right amount – enough to satisfy hard Sci-Fi readers and yet not so much that the average Joe will be turned off.

As I was reading the book at 39,000 feet, I was imagining how it could be adapted into a movie. The mild turbulence and the background score of Interstellar playing in my mind added a new dimension to the reading experience. Upon landing, I checked on the Internet to discover that not only had a movie been planned, it has already finished production and is releasing in November!

Also, potatoes are the best!

The Author

This is Andy Weir’s first novel, but not his first published story. He has written a popular short story called ‘The Egg‘ prior to this one. He has a very active Facebook presence, and has also done a Reddit AMA.

The Martian was actually a free story offered by Andy on his website. Due to its rising popularity and the demand by readers to have it in an ebook form, he put it up on Amazon as a Kindle eBook for $0.99 (the lowest price an author can set on Amazon). This is the second, successful author I have read in recent times who started out as a self-published one; the other being Michael J. Sullivan (link to that review).

Conclusion

Go. Read. It. Now! It’s not by accident that this book is a New York Times bestseller and a Goodreads Choice Award winner.

This was my first hard Sci-Fi book, and I’m definitely reading more of this genre. Any recommendations?

The Movie

Then I started following the movie buzz. My initial feelings on Matt Damon being cast as Mark Watney were mixed. Especially after seeing him play an astronaut in Interstellar. But after watching the trailer and other promotional material, I’m sold.

Here’s the (just-released) trailer:


Thanks for stopping by! Check out other book reviews, tech stuff and a travelogue as well, now that you’re here 🙂

– Omkar

Book Review: An Action-packed Fantasy

THEY KILLED THE KING. THEY PINNED IT ON TWO MEN. THEY CHOSE POORLY.
There’s no ancient evil to defeat or orphan destined for greatness, just unlikely heroes and classic adventure.

That is what the jacket text for the book ‘Theft of Swords’ said. Interesting, I thought. But like almost every person in the world with Internet access, I decided to check out the reviews on Amazon. And they’re good; 4.4 out of 5 average. The book was part of a series called ‘Riyriya Revelations’ by Michael J. Sullivan. I had never heard of the series, nor its author.

Taking a leap of faith a couple of days later, I got the book on my Kindle. Turned out to be one of my better decisions. Eventually I read ‘Rise of Empire’ and ‘Heir of Novron’ as well, the other two books in the trilogy.

This review is not for a single book, but for Riyriya Revelations as a series. Of course, no spoilers ahead; so don’t worry!

The Read

The books are tomes, as they should be, I believe, for a high fantasy series. At 704, 816, and 960 pages, they’re certainly not what you’d pick up for a weekend getaway, hoping to finish before you get back (they work well if your travel requires taking 10+ hour flights). Be prepared for a long, adventurous read. But wait, don’t dismiss them yet just because of the size!

If you’ve read (or seen) The Lord of The Rings, or A Song of Ice and Fire (‘Game of Thrones books’ for the uninitiated), you know what to expect in a high fantasy. But this series did surprise me – it is shockingly less descriptive compared to many other fantasy stories. Of course, the author ensures that the world building and description is sufficient to put the reader in the right environment. Action packed scenes compliment the dialogue-heavy ones (not too many of these), as we are taken across Apeladorn (the world), mainly around the nation of Avryn.

The best part of the series for me was the dialogue. It is surprisingly casual for a fantasy set in medieval-esque times.And it works well. The chemistry between Hadrian and Royce, the protagonists is really fun to observe. Two very different people, with unique skills, finding themselves in the middle of many adventures: it had been a while since I read something on those lines.

The UK book covers for the trilogy.

The UK book covers for the trilogy.

The Impact

It’s not The Lord of The Rings, and comparing it, or any other fantasy to Tolkien’s masterpiece is not a fair assessment. What it is, however, is a fun, adventurous read. It’s like a scaled-down, ‘zoomed in’ high fantasy. And I say this when there are multiple nations, political parties, landscapes, ethnically diverse people, religions and wizards, amongst other things!

The lack of character depth for supporting characters can be observed occasionally, but that doesn’t get in the way of good – albeit a little predictable sometimes – storytelling.

Most high fantasies follow multiple major characters; this one focuses acutely on the protagonists, and it works. At least it worked for me. Hadrian and Royce are memorable characters and I’m definitely reading more stories involving the pair.

The Author

Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan

It’s certainly worth mentioning that Michael J. Sullivan is a self-published author. He’s certainly quite social and is active on twitterreddit and Goodreads. He replies to questions and comments! A success story like his proves that if you are able to put out a good tale before people, they will read/listen. Check out his website: http://riyria.blogspot.com

The author has another series in the same world, called Riyriya Chronicles. This is a nice, spoiler-free list of how the author prefers the reader read his series in a chronological order.

Want a small taste of Apeladorn and its denizens? Check out this free short story by the author.

Conclusion

If you like fantasy, especially high fantasy, do give this a try. Of course, if you read it with Tolkien at the back of your mind, you’re likely to be disappointed. But the world the author has created is fun to read about. It has just the right amount of magic, great character chemistry, and is a well-painted canvas for a great adventure.

Book 1: Theft of Swords
Book 2: Rise of Empire
Book 3: Heir of Novron


Thanks for stopping by! Have a look around the blog for other book reviews, tech stuff and a travelogue.

Cheers!
Omkar

Book Review: Another Steve Jobs Biography?

Yes, there is already an ‘official’ biography of Steve Jobs written by Walter Isaacson. So why do we need another one? The authors of the new biography claim that Isaacson’s biography added nothing new to the public’s knowledge, and that it did not delve deeply into the years between Steve Jobs’s dismissal and eventual return to Apple. They said this was a transformational period that allowed a creative, visionary, tantrum-throwing, often-arrogant founder in his early twenties to eventually become the CEO of the most successful company on the planet.

becoming-steve-jobs-cover

To be honest, I was a bit skeptical about the book. Steve Jobs’s life has always been a popular discussion topic. With a movie and a book already out, and another movie coming soon, there has been no shortage of mainstream attention to the man’s life either. Further, the open endorsement from Apple for the book actually reduced its credibility a little bit for me. But after researching about the author Brent Schlender, I decided to give it a go; the author being a respected technology analyst for Fortune, who has covered the computer industry for more than 30 years.

The Read

The book is certainly not a quick read at 400+ pages. But it is well-paced. It is divided into chronological chapters, with each chapter having multiple sections within it – often used for detailing different threads of Steve’s life at that time. We start from his childhood and finish with his death in 2011.

For someone who is interested in the computer (now mobile, mostly) industry and cares about its history and evolution, the book is a fascinating journey. In that regard, it’s not just about Steve and Apple. Bill Gates, Andy Grove (co-founder of Intel), Michael Dell, John Lassater (Chief Creative Officer at Pixar), Ed Catmull (CEO of Pixar), Bob Iger (CEO of Disney), and of course Steve Wozniak, are just a few of the titans that appear in the book.

At the end of the book, a notes sections details how the facts presented in each chapter were derived: interview details, online links, etc. It’s worth noting that the authors have even referred to and cited Quora, specifically this answer, as part of the narrative.

Author Brent Schlender with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs after he conducted one of their only two joint interviews in 1991.

Author Brent Schlender with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs after he conducted one of their only two joint interviews, in 1991.


The Impact

The book does deliver on its promise of focusing on how Steve Jobs changed himself to be eligible to become a successful CEO at Apple. The story is not sensational, but a transformational one. While most of us aren’t facing the problems faced by Steve Jobs (and we may never), it is interesting to see, and learn from how changes to his personality and thinking led to tangible decisions and results, both good and bad.

It is also great to learn about the inside stories at both Apple and Pixar, especially since Apple is a very tight company as far as internal details go. We also get a snapshot of the personalities of many of the other key players in the computer industry. The anecdotes they have shared from their personal experiences with Steve Jobs are insightful and fun to read.

Conclusion

I enjoyed the book. The authors – Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli seem to have done their homework well. What really works in their favor is the fact that Schlender has covered Steve Jobs for more than 25 years. Apart from all the archival data and their own notes from the past, it’s the ‘off record’ things that give the authors an edge over other biographies of Steve’s. For most part, the authors reflect upon his life objectively, without any bias. From a purely management point of view, there might be too many ‘distractions’ for the reader. But if you love technology and its history, the book is certainly worth your time.

http://becomingstevejobs.com/


As always, thanks for stopping by and reading! Keep watching this blog for more reviews, travelogues, and other things! 🙂

– Omkar

Finally, No More

Today is the day! My band Collage is releasing its second, self-produced single ‘No More’. Here it is: https://soundcloud.com/collage-3/no-more

Collage logo

It has been a wonderful journey so far. One that started in 2007 and continues, in spite of the thousands of miles between us band members. On the occasion of the release, I thought it would be fun to ‘interview’ my very talented bandmates. And thankfully, all of them obliged. So here goes!

Special shoutout and thanks to the very talented Kamakshi Rai, who was our vocalist back then and was involved in the composition of the song.

A Blues-ey song?

Yashodhan: We didn’t really start off with a Blues-ish composition in mind. As far as I remember, we came up with the first chord riff and Kamakshi came up with a vocal line, with Omkar adding the lyrics. From there, we just kept building on the song, and it turned out the way it is today.

Kaustubh: Yes, we didn’t really know what Blues music was back then! The song was mainly composed and built around a guitar riff by Yasho and Kamakshi, which was canned because it was sounding remarkably similar to another song by a well known band! We decided to go for a shuffle-swing kinda feel for this song which (according to us) gave it that Blues-ish feel.

Uma: Collage has never limited itself genre-wise, but our previous two singles had a similar feel to them. While I personally was not involved in the composition of any of the singles, I had the honor of witnessing the revamp of these songs. And I saw No More grow into the peppy, jazzy number that it is now. And with that in mind, performing this song always came with a different set of expectations that I had to try and live up to.

Nikhil: We used to come up with random riffs and tracks in our jam sessions. Some of them were good, many were bad. ‘No More’ was one of the good ones. So we decided to go ahead and develop the track.

Uma: And besides just how I felt performing this song, the response from the crowd was always great. It’s a song that you can tap your foot to, and just really get into the groove with, and you could always see that in the audience. Personally, I’ve always loved doing this song.

Nikhil

Nikhil goofing off as usual during the recording.

Into The Studio

Yashodhan: It was great fun recording guitars! I had anticipated the guitar recording process would be challenging and complicated. The tracking of the acoustic guitar involved experimenting with different mikes and mike positions to get a balanced and full sound of the acoustic guitar. We also experimented with the lead guitar sound, especially with the wah effect.

Nikhil: In fact it was way too much fun to record each and every part of the song and then praise yourself for the effort :P. Also it didn’t take us that much time as Kaustubh and Yashodhan had a good understanding of the recording process.

Kaustubh: Yasho and I have recorded a lot of our music before. We had a basic idea about recording songs but we still had to learn a lot of fundamental stuff; about sound, capturing, mixing amongst other things. He did a certificate course in audio recording and I have been to a lot of recording sessions in big studios and live concerts and sound checks in Mumbai and Pune where I got to learn a lot of tips and tricks just by observing (or by asking foolish questions :P) some top sound engineers and musicians!

Uma: Typically, we record all the instruments first, and use that track to record vocals. Studio recordings have always been an adrenaline-filled experience for me (who needs skydiving?!). I was always a nervous wreck, but so excited that I’d have this ridiculous grin on my face the entire time. Being in the studio always felt surreal, with my bandmates in a separate room, watching; definitely not like the comfortable shoulder-rubbing of a good old jam session. But the nerves always made me push myself a little more and with the guidance of my bandmates it’s always been a learning experience.

Yashodhan during an acoustic guitar recording session.

Yashodhan during an acoustic guitar recording session.

Kaustubh: The process has helped us a lot. All this experience gave me a good starting point. Eventually, I decided to build a recording studio and transformed two rooms at my home into one. Fortunately it’s big enough to record live drums! And that’s what we did: our first ever drum recording session, that too at my own home studio!
We started by recording some acoustic guitar strumming as a trial track, and the same “trial” track was used on No More later! 😀 Then, on the same track we recorded the strumming, guitar lead, bass, drums and organ lead. We programmed a pilot track to record Uma’s vocals before she left for the U.S., to pursue her Masters.

Nikhil: I was also really excited about our new studio at Kaustubh’s place, and was looking forward to our first ever attempt at drum recording, all by ourselves. It took me a while to understand the recording process like the cue in the headphones and miking on the drum heads; how to make the best use of the limited number of mikes. After I got the hang of it, it wasn’t that complicated. The recording process was great fun. I learned quite a few things and cherish each and every moment.

Performing Live Vs Recording

Uma: Our biggest focus when we’re performing live is coordinating with each other and really getting our music out there to the audience; to give out the joy we feel when performing. And you only get that one shot, and we practice as hard as we can to make the best of that one shot.

Kaustubh: You have to get your notes, sound, tightness, dynamics right in that one chance on stage. When you are recording in the studio you can take your own time to do these things. There’s only one thing common between a live performance and a recording: your musicianship, which is the most important thing.

Nikhil: While recording you are with your band mates whom you know, so there’s always that comfort level and you know you’re not being judged on that performance.

Uma rocking it!

Uma rocking it!

Yashodhan: Live performance is more about the ‘performance’, the chemistry between the band members, the overall set list, how you manage to keep the crowd interested, etc. Recordings are more focussed on the song itself. Of course, playing your parts to perfection is a part of both, there is no escape from that 🙂

It’s Been A Long Road

Yashodhan: Releasing the song online does justice to all the hard work the band has put in, right from composing the song with Kamakshi, to practicing it over and over again and performing it so many times, changing little things here and there (change from A to D scale, the chromatic chords at the end of the stanza), and finally working hard to record it in the best way we can. It feels great to have your music online and get feedback from people.

Nikhil: You always feel good when you create something, whether it’s a painting, a dish you’ve cooked or a song. I always feel proud to say ‘This is my band’s song!’ and to be a part of Collage.

Kaustubh: This song is special because it’s one of our first few compositions and also because it was produced at my home studio. The first production at my studio :).

Kaustubh in a pensive mood during a practice session.

Kaustubh in a pensive mood during a practice session.

Uma: By the time we were ready to record this song, all of our lives were being hit by major changes, a result of which, the band hadn’t performed in quite some time. Our bassist had been in the United States for a year already, I was gearing up to do the same, our guitarist was busy applying to schools in the USA, our keyboardist was really beginning to make it big as a photographer, our drummer was stepping up to take over his family business. You can only imagine what these changes did to the band.
But, we rallied and decided that we absolutely had to record our singles. And so we hit our first roadblock. I was due to leave in about 2 months. There was no way we could record the final track in time, especially with the bassist away! So we recorded vocals to the pilot track! After that came the drums recording, followed by the bass recording, when our bassist returned on vacation. By this point, our guitarist was due to leave for the States and they managed to get all of his work recorded just before he left. Kaustubh worked on the mix after that, something that Yashodhan and I managed to contribute to when we visited home on vacation recently.
And so, after two years of squishing in work where and when they could, the band has come to this point where we can release this song. It really is a happy moment for us.

A Few Thoughts Of My Own

So many things have changed since this track was composed; I wasn’t even playing the bass back then! Hats-off to Kaustubh for managing the lower frequencies on the keyboard during our live performances at the time. And then there’s the evolution of the bass-line as I started learning more about the bass. The bass-line in this recorded single is drastically different from the one that used to be played even as late as 2011!
Recording at Kaustubh’s place was a great experience. Especially because we didn’t have the thought ‘We’re paying a lot per hour/day just to be here!’ at the back of our mind. And it was a new experience for us as we had never recorded bass in a studio before. So quite a lot of things were unknown. But we did it anyways. Whenever we used to perform ‘No More’ in our live shows, people would often say ‘hey, I really liked that foot-tapping number’. Comments like these used to (and still) make us smile like crazy 🙂

Personally, it is a wonderful moment sharing our creation with everyone outside of live performances. The journey from creating the track way back in 2007, to performing it live in shows and competitions, to finally releasing it has been a great, emotional one.

Collage is:
Uma Phadnis – Vocals
Yashodhan Karandikar – Guitars, Production
Kaustubh Joshi – Keyboards, Guitars, Production
Yours Truly – Bass
Nikhil Deshpande – Drums

Looking forward to recording and sharing more of our music with you! Do checkout and like our Facebook page!

Hope you guys liked No More and a glimpse into how it was made. If you liked it, please spread the word and the share the link to the track – https://soundcloud.com/collage-3/no-more – on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, (Ello, anyone?) and/or any other social network. Any support would be much appreciated 🙂

Collage with Remo Fernandes

Collage with Remo Fernandes


As always, thanks a ton for reading! Stay tuned for an exciting travelogue, coming up next!

– Omkar

A Wonderful Evening With Yanni

In March, I happened to stumble upon the fact that Yanni was going to perform in San Diego. Yes, in proper San Diego; not in LA, not in Orange County or any other place nearby. Ticketmaster showed that the tickets would go on sale in a couple of days. Even though September was quite far away, I knew I was going to get tickets right away.

Yanni has touched a lot of people’s lives. And so there are quite a few of his fans among my friends. I called up a couple of them right away. While they liked Yanni, I honestly didn’t think they would agree on spending more than a hundred dollars for a concert six months away. And I was prepared for it actually. Prepared to attend the concert all by myself if it came to that. But thankfully, they were all in; and requested me to book a ‘+1’ each for their friends. And so I booked the tickets in March, within forty-eight hours of them going on sale.

The excitement was palpable on the perfect, scarlet San Diego evening. In a sea of well-dressed people, we stood outside the San Diego Civic Theatre, waiting for a friend to arrive. The friend, also a bandmate, was one of the ‘+1’s (friend’s friend) I mentioned earlier. A fact that reminded me how quickly things change in life.

The stage is set! Image from http://sandiegotheatres.org/press/

The stage is set! Courtesy: http://sandiegotheatres.org/press/

Out seats were in row M, the thirteenth row from the stage, in the Orchestra section. My first thought was how many people had booked their tickets before us, the moment they became available. But we were very happy with our seats. They were close to the center, slightly to the right (facing the stage). Despite not being an expert on the subject, I thought we were in a good spot acoustically. The theatre filled up quickly. We saw people carrying small wine glasses as they squeezed their way through the packed rows. The two balconies above had narrow, tapering arms that extended along the side of the theatre.

The stage was set. I was actually a little surprised to find that the curtains were not drawn. Yanni’s piano and keyboard station (I don’t know what else to call this large structure that contained eight keyboards!) were in the front, on stage level. A multi-level platform was raised behind them. On the first level we saw a line of chairs. Violins, cellos, horns, trumpets and harps were present. The second level had precession, bass, a large drum kit in the centre, and another keyboard station (with just six keyboards). A deep, dark blue light illuminated all of this.

8:00 PM. The house lights dimmed and went out. Showtime. A huge round of applause went up as the orchestra members appeared on stage from either side of the setup and started taking their positions. The stage lights were still dim, but I was able to recognize Samvel Yervinian (violin), Charlie Adams (drums), Ming Freeman (keyboards) and Victor Espinola (harp). The musicians took about a minute or so to adjust their positions and instruments, and started playing an intro music of sorts. And there he was, dressed in white; running from the stage entry at the back into the spotlight. As the intro music played Yanni ran on the stage, waving to the crowd and high-five-ing some of the people in the first row.

Amazing ambience and lighting, poor quality photo!

This was my view. Amazing ambience and lighting, poor quality photo!

And what an evening it was. Voyage, The End Of August, Marching Seasons. For Nightingale, Lauren Jelencovich accompanied Yanni. What a voice! I could not believe it was possible for a human being to hit such high notes! For Felitsa (‘mother’ in Greek), Yanni mentioned how the word love is overused in our daily lives. He went on to explain that there are twelve words for love in Greek, of different magnitudes. Felitsa was written by him for his mother, with love of the highest magnitude (I forgot the Greek word).

Of course, Samvel Yervinian blew us away with his violin solo. Yanni introduced him as the best violin player on earth twice, and it was clear why. Although having watched the Yanni Live! concert video (recorded at Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas), I wasn’t surprised by the solo. The drum solo by Charlie Adams, however, was a huge surprise. For starters, it was a twenty-minute long solo! And a superb one! There were different sections of the solo, each having its own crescendo of sorts. And that guy knows how to please the crowd. Before the solo, he slipped into a San Diego Chargers jersey! Yanni mentioned that he wears a different shirt for every show on their world tour.

The songs went by quickly. It was just an amazing evening due to a (expected) legendary performance and a very loud crowd! Yanni came back on stage for two encores after bowing and leaving! Though I’m quite sure that was planned, it was nevertheless an amazing moment – the audience cheering, clapping and yelling for him to come back on stage.

A truly wonderful artist!

A truly wonderful artist! Courtesy: Yanni’s Official Facebook Page

Yanni has a ‘One world’ cause that he advocates quite passionately. He mentioned how music is something truly international and knows no boundaries. Yanni’s music is truly international I believe; one can pinpoint the multiple styles of music that have influenced him and yet it is hard to classify his music into a particular style. The record labels put it under ‘World’ or ‘New Age’ music. He waved at the orchestra and called them his mini-United Nations! Both NASA and the Russian Space Agency have allowed Yanni to visit their restricted areas and interact with the astro/cosmo-nauts. He mentioned how his music has never been censored in any country and how he wishes the man-made boundaries would just disappear, and the Earth would be just like how humans from space see it. “That is my dream”, he concluded and started playing One Man’s Dream, the last song of the evening. Magical stuff!

An amazing Saturday night. I wish it had gone on and on. Yanni promised he’s coming back to San Diego next year. This time I won’t wait forty-eight hours to book the tickets!

I would like to leave you with the song that introduced me to Yanni, and is one of my favorite Yanni tracks. Apologies, if Spotify is not available where you are.

– Omkar

No Donut For You: A Remembrance

Back in 2005-06, things were different. Birthdays were remembered; photo sharing happened at someone’s place with people crowding around a monitor; and friends generally didn’t say wonderful, flattering things to each other’s face. That was life before Orkut, the first social network for many in India.

Was Orkut the first social network? Nope, successful ones like MySpace already existed by the time Orkut came along. But it was certainly the first one to gain a large user base in India. And boy was it popular. Of course, its popularity was rather short-lived due to the quick, tectonic shift to Facebook by a large number of people. But for me, and many others I’m sure, Orkut was the first social networking experience. And now (unsurprisingly) Google is shutting down the deserted social network on September 30th.

Orkut

As a teenager just out of high school, the impact of the social network was substantial. A lot of new acquaintances suddenly became ‘friends’ and started sharing stuff. Posting ‘scraps’ on each others profiles became a thing. A very weird thing actually. Why did I have to say things to a friend ‘in public’, where everyone could eavesdrop? I didn’t have to, but I did, just like most of my friends. Many people (I’m guilty as well) had weird profile names; a crazy fad where you used the first and last name fields to write messages. I think this continued even after Orkut added a status field. Fan groups were also quite popular with Orkut. People created pages for everything and everyone; a trend that still continues in Facebook today.

And then there was the rating system! If I recall correctly, people ‘rated’ friends on three ‘parameters’: friendliness, attractiveness and coolness. If that isn’t cringeworthy, I’m not sure what is. But people did it anyways! No wonder Google hasn’t been too successful at social networking (even though they did take down the ‘ratings’ feature). But the most important, and fun feature was the ability to write testimonials for friends. And of course, having your friends write one for you. In fact, testimonials were so popular that back then there were Facebook add-ons for testimonials! Not that they became popular (thankfully).

Orkut tried. Maybe not too hard, but they changed their interface, style and privacy controls to stop users from moving to Facebook. It was born out of the ‘20% project time’ at Google where employees can work on something other than their job responsibilities. And you somehow got the feeling that Google always treated it that way. It would have been interesting if Google was serious about social back then. But they weren’t, and they’re still paying the price for that today.

Social networks have certainly had an impact on our lives. And Orkut was the first one for many of us. While it won’t be missed, it will be remembered for sure. So if you want to download and save those first, awkward social moments, pictures, and other things, Google has provided a way to do so. Save them! They’ll be fun to look at a couple of decades from now. After 30th September, there’s no donut for you 🙂

– 0Mk@r ~ OrKut R0cK$

P.S. – That was never my profile name on Orkut.

Review: Humanity at Times of War

What I write about is not war but the courage of man.
– Cornelius Ryan

Let me start off by saying this: I love history. Because not only is truth stranger than fiction, it is often more dramatic, unbelievable, shocking and entertaining as well.

Thanks to my father, I was hooked on to world politics and World War stories from an early age. But apart from exposure through movies and a few lessons in high school, somehow I never delved deep into World War 2 events.

A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned that a wartime correspondent and author by the name of Cornelius Ryan has written a great set of books on WW2. I had never heard of this gentleman before. Having seen and ‘played’ (Medal of Honor: Allied Assault) the events of D-Day before, I was excited about diving deep into the historic day a little more. Based on the reviews on Amazon and B&N, I decided to go ahead and order the book titled ‘The Longest Day’. At the same time, I realized that there is a movie adaptation by the same name; how did I manage to miss that?! But since I am a ‘books > movies’ guy when it comes to adaptations, I didn’t watch the movie. I was halfway through the first book when I ordered the second one: ‘The Last Battle’. There was no stopping now!

Cornelius_Ryan_Combined

Wow, what an epic nine-hundred page journey it has been; certainly an emotional roller-coaster.

These were the first history books I read that did not have any follow-up quizzes or exams afterwards. And I loved them! Cornelius Ryan is a great writer. Here’s why –

  • Not once did the books come off as ‘boring history textbooks’. Fascinating descriptions of the environment, the battles and the (voluntary and involuntary) participants in them. You’re not reading anymore: you’re sucked in, experiencing a horrible, glorious and decisive period in 1944-45.
  • He has an amazing way of revealing factual information: through dialogues, famous speeches and messages, and sometimes even from the perspective of a civilian, intently listening to the radio. I got goosebumps while reading the radio broadcast that announced the invasion of France (D-Day) to the western world. What a moment it must have been, especially for the loved ones of the soldiers involved.
  • The human emotions in the books are staggering. Often, we are only presented with the tactical and battle elements of WW2 but the true stories of civilians caught in the crossfire are heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.

There are so many things that happened in WW2 that are not given much footage in pop culture. How many women wanted the Allies to capture Berlin because of the horror stories they had heard about the Russian soldiers; the shock when some of the soldiers behaved like gentlemen; the final moments before the greatest armada in modern history set sail from Britain to land on the coast of France; French civilians’ surprising encounters with the brave Allied paratroopers who landed in France a few hours before the naval assault; Hitler’s decision-making process, Stalin’s relations with the West, and many other things. There is a reason some of the German generals were feared and admired by both the sides. The books provide detailed (point of view style) information on two of them: Rommel and Heinrici.

Whether you’re a history buff, an avid reader or just someone who loves great stories, both these books are highly recommended. So don’t be scared, not all history books bite! 🙂

I stumbled upon this amazing promotional video for The Last Battle from the sixties. It has footage from the Battle for Berlin!

Thanks for reading!

– Omkar

Game of Thrones: A Reader’s Dilemma (No Spoilers)

A great season four of Game of Thrones has come to an end and this meme is relevant again.

that-awkward-moment-when-you-finish-a-tv-show

But life has to go on; and allow the gaping hole left by this magnificent show’s absence to be filled by other magnificent, addictive shows, games and/or movies. Ahem … anyways, moving on.

Having read all five books of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series by George R. R. Martin last year, I thought this season would mainly be expectation-based i.e. ‘How are they going to show this?’, ‘I hope they do justice to his death’, ‘Please, please don’t cut that character out!’ etc. But the show runners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have made changes to the show that got me (and many other book readers) thinking about a lot of things.

Dan Weiss and David Benioff: The show runners

Dan Weiss and David Benioff: The show runners

As an insurance policy for HBO against anything happening to GRRM (may the Seven, the Old Gods, the Drowned God and the Lord of Light keep him safe), the show runners know how the series is going to end. GRRM has mentioned in a couple of interviews that while they do know the ending, they’re not privy to all of the subtle plot twists and events that take us there. Hell, even he doesn’t know some of them yet! Now why should that bother me? Well, any changes they make in the show, any characters they cut out have readers thinking on the lines of ‘Wait, so this guy ultimately dies? Why did GRRM write so much about him for the last couple of books?!’ This is how the show has subtly started spoiling the books.

It gets worse. In the interest of producing great television material (and I agree with their choices most of the time), David and Dan have realigned some of the story-lines in the books. In fact, some of the story arcs feel more clean and polished than the books. But that has become an issue because GRRM does not give equal page time to all the characters. As a result, a certain character’s story arc on the show (end of season four) has already reached the fifth book! Everything they show about this character in season five is likely to be a book spoiler.

THIS. NOW! Please? :-(

THIS. NOW! Please? 😦

Readers have already been dealing with the fact that many of their favorite scenes and characters will be cut in the process of adapting for television. But now there is a bigger, more serious conflict brewing. In many ASOIAF fan sites, forums and sub-reddits, fans have said they will stop watching the show if it catches up to, and surpasses, the books. Well, that’s not going to happen. Due to the show’s immense popularity, people who plan to watch an episode within twenty four hours of the first airing can’t manage avoiding spoilers! So it is going to be a tough call for book readers who want to stick to the story told by GRRM. I envy people who are just following the show, constantly getting blown away by one of the best television productions of our time, blissfully oblivious to the amazing characters and scenes they are missing out on.

A solution to this? Learning magic to somehow make GRRM write the last couple of books ASAP! Based on how he announced the completion of the fifth book (A Dance With Dragons), I am sincerely hoping to see more dead King Kongs soon.

Greatest Snow On Earth: Part 3

Finally, after many delays, here’s the third and final part of my Utah trip back in December 2013. If you don’t know what I am talking about, here you go! Part three covers days four and five of the trip.

Thank you for the great support and encouragement I have received from many of you while writing 🙂

Part 1
Part 2


Day 4 – 30th December, 2013

Our skiing lesson was scheduled from one till four and we were expected to arrive by noon to be in a position to start on time. Since the drive to Park City was expected to take four hours, we had planned to leave by seven. But by the time we were on highway 191, it was already 7:20. Park City is just a half an hour’s drive away from Salt Lake City, in the mountains. It hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The morning drive allowed us to see some great sights. Visible to our far right were the red borders of Arches. The road ahead was a clear, dark-grey line through a field of white snow patches. The accumulated snow had melted considerably since we came down this road a couple of days ago. At one point, the road curved and we were headed directly towards a ‘wall’ of rock plateaus (weird description, I know; the picture should help). It was  freezing cold that morning. The desert sunlight was making it hard for us to believe that the temperature was minus fifteen degrees outside on this clear, sunny day. Throughout the northward drive, we could see mountains on the right; the countless wrinkles on their sides adding to the beauty.

(Special thanks to my friend and bandmate Yashodhan for allowing me to use his composition in the video!)

There had been no time for breakfast that morning. By the time we neared the city of Provo, we started looking for places to eat nearby. Since we were still on the highway, we decided to use the Cherokee’s built-in navigation. Search results for ’Subway’ showed one nearby and we took the first exit towards it. In our rush to quickly find a place to eat (and not waste time) we only looked at the distances. As it turned out, we actually went back south on an internal road! The stop was a quick one. On our way in, we met a woman who asked us which part of India we were from. She informed us that she had lived in Chennai for six months or so; probably as part of a Christian mission, from the way she mentioned a few things. While eating, Saurabh called up the ski resort to inform them of a possible delay in our arrival.

Leaving Provo, we started on the Provo Canyon Road that would take us through the mountains. The drive was superb. While traveling south from SLC to Moab, we had taken a different, more direct route. As the mountains around us opened up, we were greeted by a beautiful view of the Deer Creek Reservoir. In a few miles, we could see Deer Creek State Park to our left. The scenic drive along the lake lasted for the next seven miles or so. No pictures clicked from the moving Jeep did justice to the beauty of the lake. In a few miles, we started climbing. It wasn’t a typical mountain road climb but a gradual one with hardly any hairpin turns. We were on a plateau of sorts, waiting to get closer to the mountain. On our right we saw the Jordanelle Reservoir.

We continued to climb. But it didn’t feel like climbing. As we got closer to Park City, the plateau ended and we started on the slope of a mountain. It’s worth mentioning that even the mountain road had three lanes on each side!

Park City, UT

I have never been to Switzerland. But based on what I’ve read and seen on TV, it must certainly have places like Park City. Small, crowded, but pretty roads. Slope-y streets, with cozy shops, cafés and restaurants. Houses with sloping roofs with the mountains in the backdrop. I’ve seen a few places around the US in the last two and a half years or so but for the first time I felt I was in a different, European country.

Of course, we didn’t have time to enjoy all that right away as we were forty-five minutes behind schedule already. We reached the skiing resort at quarter to one. Our training was scheduled from one till four. As we entered the parking lot of the resort, there were ‘Parking Full’ signboards everywhere. Saurabh and Madhavi got down at the entrance and went ahead to speak with the instructor. Vikram and I circled the large parking lot in vain, three times at least. There was a lot of activity in that lot. Open cars and SUVs; people carrying rented gear; unpacking their skis, boots, jackets, head gear, eye gear and snowboards; children walking across the road in their tiny ski boots, holding their parent’s hand.

A traffic guard advised us to go down the slope a couple of blocks, where there was a public parking lot. A bus would get us to the resort in no time, he added. But somehow we weren’t quite convinced. In a lane adjacent to the resort, we found a street parking spot. In the meantime, Madhavi called to let us know that we should come quickly, as the instructor was getting irritated with the delay. There were even talks of postponing the skiing session to the next morning; an impossible task in the middle of the holiday season, we quickly found out. Grabbing our sacks and jackets from the boot, we made our way to the resort.

Our trainer was a tall, well-built guy who always seemed to have a smile on his face. He wore a bright red sports suit (trainer’s uniform, we realized later) and bright blue ski boots. After introductions, he quickly marched us off to the equipment rental section. We filled out applications on the registration computers and proceeded to get our boots.

Losing balance frequently: I was prepared for it; falling on my back or face: expected; kids laughing at my ski skills: no problem. But I wasn’t ready for ski boots! Those were the most uncomfortable pair of boots I’ve worn in my life. They were tight, as they should be. Also, it didn’t help that we were supposed to tuck our snow pants, in my case: jeans, into the boots. Putting the boots on was one thing, walking with them on was even worse. Having your ankle locked for the first time makes you feel like a one year old taking their first steps. Nevertheless, all of us managed to start walking and proceeded to get our skis and poles.

Then there was the eyewear issue. With a great sense of timing, my sunglasses had broken a few weeks before the trip. Replacing them wasn’t an easy task due to the delay in getting new prescription lenses made. For some reason I thought a ski resort might do eyewear rental as well; a thought that was quickly shot down by the instructor with ‘possible eye infections’ as an explanation. So my options were to ski without eyewear or spend sixty dollars on something I would hardly use again after a few hours. I asked the instructor if eyewear was really, really essential for skiing. He looked at me thoughtfully for a few seconds with his green eyes and said ‘You might do fine for a couple of hours; you’ve got dark eyes’. My perplexed expression prompted him to add ‘it’s just that the bright reflection from the snow can burn your retinas if you have light-colored eyes.’ Great! A fun thought to have during my first ski lesson. Anyways, I returned empty handed to join the others. It turned out all of us were skiing without eyewear!

Carrying our equipment, we headed out of the rental area. Just when I thought I was getting used to the boots, we found ourselves at the bottom of a long staircase. At one point it got so bad, I had to climb the stairs sideways, which wasn’t a significant improvement. Reaching the top, we waded through the crowd and finally got onto the snow. The winter sun was about to slip behind the mountain, casting a long shadow on the slope. There was hardly any glare. So much for retina burning.

‘Put your equipment down and get into this position’ said our instructor as we reached the edge of the slope. We were on the opposite side of the entrance to the snow. It was a slope with an ‘easy’ difficulty level, not the small, confined area where kids learn to ski. Our instructor was skiing without any poles, hands behind his back. We were also informed of the ‘pizza slice’ (wedge) position used to stop while skiing. The instructor made us practice getting into the position without skis; it was going to be more difficult with the skis on. We were also told how to hold a ski pole and why its cord loop has to be wrapped around our hand. ‘If you just put your thumb in it, it’s going to get ripped of if the pole gets caught in someone’s skis.’ Fascinating!

A short while later, we managed to put on the right ski and were told to walk around: taking a step with the left foot and sliding with the right. Before putting on the second ski, we were told to make sure we were standing perpendicular to the slope.

The first thing I realized was how heavy the skis were! Of course, they have to match the height and more importantly, the weight of the person wearing them. So let’s not follow that train of thought. Since Saurabh had skied before, he spoke with the instructor briefly and started going down the slope gradually. The instructor proceeded to help Vikram. Madhavi and I were standing by. Madhavi’s discomfort due to the boots was growing by the minute. I don’t know if she was scared or not but she looked terribly uncomfortable. As Vikram got going, the instructor turned towards me.

He asked me to be in the wedge position and moved a few feet away. I was told to gradually make my skis parallel to each other. As I did it, I started moving. A bit too fast for my liking. And so I managed to stop. The second time I tried to get into the wedge position, I did it too quickly, and while attempting to counterbalance the abrupt stop, fell backwards. But the snow was soft as a feather mattress. Skiing: 1, Ice Skating: 0.

Getting up proved to be quite a challenge. Since I had fallen flat on my back, my legs were on either side, stuck in an awkward position due to locked ankles. The instructor came over and asked me to turn sideways and get my legs together. After that I rolled to an upright position again. And then he said ‘Alright, just grab your knees and stand.’ Well, that wasn’t going to happen. ‘Come on, the skis move your centre of gravity and so you can easily do it while wearing ‘em.’ And it worked!

Looking at our overall (slow) progress, the instructor asked Vikram and myself to go over to the smaller, training slope. We managed to get to the other side of the slope at a slow and steady speed. As we were crossing, kids as young as five were swishing by us; effortlessly, casually dodging two clumsy, grown-up beginners. By this point Saurabh was already on the ski lift, wanting to conquer the easy slope at least. Madhavi was looking more and more uneasy as the instructor was speaking with her.

The training slope was fun. Gradual, wide and it had conveyer belts to bring us back to the top. A couple of iterations later, I was able to move and stop without falling! The instructor then came over and asked me to follow him down the slope. He was facing me. As I began to move, he started turning into a snake-like ’S’ pattern. I was quite excited to reach the end of the slope without falling. He asked me to continue practicing turns. Vikram was doing the same. Saurabh had also joined us.

A wonderful first-time experience!

A wonderful first-time experience!

And then it was over. Before saying goodbye, we managed to get our picture taken with the instructor. Tired and hurting from the ski boots, we made our way back to the resort to return the equipment. Oh the joy of wearing plain, simple, flat snow shoes again; it felt like I had switched to flip-flops! We headed to cozy coffee shop in the resort and miraculously managed to find a ‘sofa spot’ in the crowded café. The atmosphere was wonderful. Christmas decorations were all over the place. Families, friends, couples, small and large groups were immersed in the joy of the holiday season.

We were booked in at The Yarrow Resort Hotel & Conference Center. Everyone was exhausted by the time we checked-in. But this was going to be our only evening in Park City and so we freshened up and headed out again. Parking the Cherokee in a tight street spot one block away, we started walking towards Main Street.

The narrow street was packed with people: walking, window shopping, waiting to be seated at restaurants and just hanging out; sporting a myriad of winter jackets and boots. Many shops had an antique-y feel about them. Most of the establishments had holiday decorations. The slight slope of the street added to the beauty of the lights. Even though we were tired and hurting from the skiing session, we walked up and down quite a lot on the street. We saw a restaurant by the name of Bangkok Thai on Main and spontaneously (!) decided to have dinner there. Through its pavement-level windows, we could see most of the tables, and mouth-watering dishes, below. The entrance led to a downward staircase. A polite gentleman in the foyer informed us about a twenty minute waiting time. We agreed, reserved a spot in the line, and went out on the street for more exploration; of souvenirs, in the nearby gift shop.

Dinner started with our server asking us if we would like some wine. He insisted, as they had a collection of more than two thousand! The wine menu was a thick one; Tyrion Lannister would have been proud! After hopelessly looking through the menu, the only thing we agreed upon was that paying two thousand dollars for a bottle of wine was crazy. And so we asked the server to get us an ‘affordable red wine, not too sweet’. The food was delicious. One portion each of curry, noodles and rice sufficed for the four of us. An hour and a half later, we headed back to the hotel.

In spite of being tired, full and sleepy, we managed to play a few rounds of Uno (with ‘7-0’ rules) before falling asleep.


Day 5 – 31st December, 2013

The final day. One of the things on the agenda for the day was ‘waking up late’. After four days of not getting sleep, everyone took it a little easy this morning. The aftereffects of skiing for the first (second for Saurabh) time were quite apparent. At around 9:30, we walked to an Einstein Bros bagel shop nearby. A spinach-and-egg everything bagel, along with black vanilla coffee made for a great (but light) breakfast. On our way walk back, we explored a few blocks behind the hotel.

A better agenda item for the day was the Alpine Coaster. Back at the Park City Mountain ski resort, we stood in line to buy the rather expensive tickets ($20 a pop). But having watched a point-of-view video of the ride, even $50 wouldn’t have stopped us. The sky was heavy and overcast; the diffused light making the snow-covered mountains shine. If we were on a hike in these conditions, a ridiculous number of photos would have been clicked. We walked across the beginner slope (in regular snow boots for a change!) to the far side of the resort to get to the coaster.

Park City Mountain Resort. Crossing the slope was quite an intense activity!

Park City Mountain Resort. Crossing the slope was quite an intense activity!

The Alpine Coaster is a pretty unique ride. Tracks are laid on the slopes of the Wasatch mountain, weaving through trees and snow. The ‘sleds’ glide on the steel rails and have a controllable braking mechanism to reduce speed. A chain system pulls the sled up the slope. The ride up is quite slow and allows you to enjoy the beautiful scenery in peace. Unless you are constantly worried about speeding back down the mountain in a few minutes. Words cannot describe the experience of riding a roller coaster (neither can a YouTube video actually) but please check out the video below. The conditions in the video (snow, sky) are almost identical. Skip to 8:45 in the video if you want to jump to the downhill part.

Near the alpine coaster, after the exhilarating experience!

Near the alpine coaster, after the exhilarating experience!

While walking back across the ski slope, we were tempted to ski again. The discussion got to a point where we stopped for a moment, ready to turn back, but decided to head back to Salt Lake City. We had quite some time to spare in SLC, before taking part in any New Year celebrations. As usual, Saurabh – the ‘local’ boy – suggested visiting Antelope Island, close to SLC. He was a bit skeptical due to the overcast sky but since we had nothing better to do, we went ahead with the two-hour drive.

Antelope Island, UT

Salt Lake City gets its name from the Great Salt Lake that lies on its northwestern side. Antelope Island is a large island in the Great Salt Lake. The causeway to the island was as straight as an arrow for a long time. We stopped near a small booth to pay the entrance fee. The ambience outside was surreal. The road was a striking black line in a sea of white all around us. We were practically inside the overcast weather! Visibility was quite poor; we couldn’t see the lake at all. A marshy smell and vague dark plains were the only indications that there was water on either side of the road.

As we got onto the island, the fog started thinning and we got our first glimpse of the landscape around us. It was quite a mixture: swampy, icy patches covered with snow; snow-capped hills in the distance; flat plains stretching out far into the fog; patches of short, dull-green and brown shrubs and grass covered with snow. But the most striking (and slightly unsettling) thing was the lack of movement. Apart from a couple of cars passing us in the opposite direction we saw nothing else. You’d think a place called Antelope Island would be full of antelopes, right? Or at least you would expect to see a few here and there.

‘That’s an antelope over there!’ one of us said as the Jeep pulled into the parking lot of the visitors center. We could see a dark silhouette of the majestic animal a few feet away from the lot. But every step we took towards it made us realize that it was a (well done) sculpture. Slightly disappointed, we clicked a few photos (how many times did you spot Vikram in the panorama above?) and went inside for information. The island is a twenty-eight thousand acre mass of land within the Great Salt Lake. Rocks as old as 1.7 billion years have been found here. But the most interesting part was finding out that the animal with the greatest population on Antelope Island is … the Bison. Yeah.

The Antelope Island causeway.

The Antelope Island causeway.

Saurabh mentioned that there was an interesting place on the southern part of the island. A ranch. Not quite convinced that a ranch would be interesting, we headed south along the Antelope Island road; sticking close to the eastern edge of the island.

The Fielding Garr ranch has the oldest house in Utah. It was established in 1848. The reason this place is so special is because many of the artifacts and buildings on the ranch are still there. When we walked into a large shed, it was like walking into a period movie set. Apart from a couple of other people, there was no one on the ranch. The ranch caretaker, a septuagenarian with hair as white as the snow around us, chatted with us for ten minutes or so. The scenery around us was amazing. The ranch was so isolated in the vast, snow-covered desert it looked like a location remote place in New Zealand that could be used as location for Middle Earth.

View from inside the ranch. That's how postcards are framed, I'm sure!

View from inside the ranch. That’s how postcards are framed, I’m sure!

It was almost 4:30 PM (and getting dark) by the time we left the island, heading back to Salt Lake City. Madhavi was feeling a little unwell. All of us were tired. The fact that we had missed lunch did not help. We decided to have a late lunch at a place called Taste of India. We devoured the soup, dal and paneer at a ridiculous speed; I don’t even remember the taste!

Salt Lake City, UT

The Utah State Capitol was our next destination. The building had an imposing presence and great architecture. Having visited Washington, DC last year, I had thought that this would be just another government building. But it was great experience. As we walked around it, the path was, at places, flanked by detailed statues. It was also quite icy and I slipped a couple of times but managed to stay on my feet.

Utah State Capitol

Utah State Capitol

After that, it was decision time: either check-in at our hotel, or start the New Year celebrations a little early. We went with the later one and went to the historic Temple Square. The place was covered with decorations. Trees were lit up orange in their entirety. Red, green, and yellow lights were seen covering short poles; creating the effect of short christmas trees. The beautiful Salt Lake Temple was lit up in a pale white light at the base; a pristine white light glowed from the top of the towers at the four corners of the building.

Salt Lake Temple. The only picture I could take that did not have a million people getting in the way!

Salt Lake Temple. The only picture I could take that did not have a million people getting in the way!

We stumbled upon a live performance in Salt Lake Tabernacle next to the temple and decided to go in and watch. The tabernacle had a slightly rotund, oval-shaped structure. The seats in the orchestra section were long wooden benches. The balconies had wooden railings. The highlight of the structure was the massive organ at its end. We managed to find seats at the back, just in time for the organ performance. Next up were Irish step-dancers. After that, a soprano prodigy stunned us with her performance. It was the first time I had seen a live soprano and I am sure it wasn’t my last! Since the tabernacle was built before the era of microphones, it was designed to have good acoustics.

The Salt Lake Tabernacle Organ. Photo by Saurabh.

The Salt Lake Tabernacle Organ. Photo by Saurabh.

By the time it was 8:00, we were feeling exhausted. We figured that staying here for another hour of so would mean missing the New Years’ celebration. We checked-in at out hotel by 9:00. Everyone was stretching out. Since there would be no more snow-trails to walk upon, we could finally ditch the heavy snow boots. At 11:00, it took quite a lot of will power to convince ourselves to get up, put on the heavy jackets and head out into the cold again.

The atmosphere in Temple Square was electrifying! All the roads into the square were blocked; only pedestrian traffic was allowed. Families, groups of friends, couples, all sorts of people had gathered there. A voice blared over a hidden amplifier, starting the countdown. 10 … 9 … 8 …

As 2014 showed up, a bunch of firecrackers exploded above us. And they just didn’t stop. All sorts of colors and patterns appeared above our heads in varying intervals. Every once in a while a single, massive firecracker would explode, prompting the crowd to cheer loudly. It was a wonderful place to be at. Sadly, none of us clicked any pictures. The fireworks lasted for fifteen minutes or so. A great, climactic way to end an epic trip.

San Diego, CA

Everyone was sleeping on the morning flight back to San Diego. The moment we got out of the terminal, it was a different world. A world without snow, majestic mountains, canyons, lakes, a lot of things. The Southern California sun was shining brightly in the clear sky and yet it could not melt the gloomy atmosphere in the airport shuttle as we headed home.

Utah is an amazing place! It certainly won our hearts. And because there are so many great places still unexplored there, we’re definitely going back some day.


Thank you so much for reading my first travelogue! 🙂 I am hoping to travel more and keep writing more of these. Kindly leave your thoughts in the comments section.

– Omkar

Link to Part 1 and Part 2.