Recent Travels – Everglades National Park

One of those long-standing items in the Florida travel wishlist finally happened a couple of weeks ago – largely to commemorate the PhD defense.¬†The Everglades is perhaps best avoided during this time of the year. Insect bites and a lost-wallet episode aside, I had a pretty uneventful trip. Gators, crocodiles, panthers (they say!), hundreds of species of birds (I missed the lion’s share though!), lot of interesting (and sad) stories on the Burmese pythons in the park, the mangroves – all made for an interesting couple of days. Remind me to hit the park in the winters though!

Oh! And I highly recommend Hotel Redland at Homestead, FL for stay. Really interesting place at a decent distance from the park.

Some pictures:

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The Anhinga Trail. Gators, lots of them (none in this photo though)
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One of the most predominant sightings during the Anhinga Trail. Bites deadly.
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Stilt roots to support the tree as it grows both vertically and horizontally. How cool!
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Coot Bay
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Whitewater Bay
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Pa-Hay-Okee Lookout. Was supposed to find more than fish here.

TRB 2017 on the horizon

By the time this is on air, we may have passed 2016 and let me just stop with how glad I am to see the back of it. 2017 comes with a lot of promises – graduation, employment, travel and let’s just stop short of saying that I’m really chuffed about it too. How was everyone’s 2016? Did you make any resolutions that you were able to keep at whole through the year? Do you believe in resolutions? Why so, if not? And finally, what are you looking for, in 2017? Let me know! ūüôā

Anyways, first up in 2017 is the 96th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board¬†(TRB 2017)- the yearly pilgrimage for every transportation enthusiast out there. This year, like the past years, I will be focussing my energies on the connected/autonomous events at TRB. TRB presents a logistical nightmare (the good kind) which makes it almost imperative to challenge the time manager in you to get the best out of the conference. Most of the “good stuff” on the AV/CV section is focussed around Monday and Tuesday, although I am already regretting that I shall miss event 868 on Wednesday afternoon as I am due to fly back to Tampa. There are also a few career events and other receptions in additions to the sessions that would feature in my plans. In addition to that, we (CUTR/USF) are also hosting out first ever TRB Reception & Alumni Reunion on Sunday (Jan 8) – something that I’m looking forward to, immensely.

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Once TRB is finished, my¬†focus will go back to the dissertation and the final leap towards the graduation process. We are long overdue an update about my work here¬†so I will be updating this space time and again with little tidbits on the dissertation and my overall findings as we move along this year. I am also in the job market for an industry position in the transportation planning/modeling realms, so that is an¬†additional area of focus for the first part of 2017. Finally, I was catching up with the weather in D.C. with an eye on my baggage – doesn’t look for good reading especially since Florida kinda missed the winter this time.

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¬† ¬† ¬†So not looking forward to 16 degrees on Sunday! ūüė¶

A note on TRB 2015 and Washington DC

So yes, TRB 2015 was pretty awesome I thought. The efforts to hold the gargantuan conference in one venue (technically two, if you discount¬†the tunnel between the Marriott and the Convention Center) paid off and I am happy¬†to say that I did not miss out on any of my planned sessions (unlike last time). The Automated Vehicle (AV) sessions were well attended – so much so that I could not get into one of the sessions and had to be standing out on guard duty. But I’d imagine it is pretty great that a lot of attention has been focussed on something that is upon us, if not tomorrow, in a few years’ time.

My main idea of hitting DC this time was to attend the AV sessions and gauge what was going on with the rest of the AV research folk. A secondary interest was to catch up with people Рold and new. On the research front, abunch of interesting AV sessions. My favourites works on AVs were focussed around the consumer perception and anticipated travel behaviour aspects of AVs Рa study from Germany on travel time valuation, a few of the UT Austin works on shared AVs and a few of the posters (especially this one on social media and mode choice from UC Davis), which I thought were  brilliant. Apart from the sessions and meetings, it was nice to meet most of my old professors and colleagues from Portugal and a couple of very good friends from back home (NIT Calicut).

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Experimenting Eritrean cuisine – that went well.

While the sessions took shape, it snowed a bit in DC as well – my first active snowfall experience. It didn’t snow this time, last year though. And since I had been to most places around town, I didn’t bother much to go sightseeing either (the cold didn’t help too, I must say). Despite the cold weather, I must confess that I quite like Washington DC. It has the airs of this¬†big city with life moving at a comfortable pace. I have been told that the same can’t be said about New York City, where people always seem to be in a rush. DC from my experience, proved to a hybrid of Madras and Bombay. Add to that, the excellent accessibility guaranteed by the largely efficient, yet ill-maintained transit system and it does it for me. Coming from Florida, this is a welcome sight. The whole idea of not having to drive by your own volition excites me and I would totally see myself living and working there.

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Loews Madison, Washington DC

We found¬†a pretty nice (some may say fancy) place to stay close to the White House. I came back to Tampa last Thursday and still haven’t kicked out of the vacation mood. 2015 is the year of opportunities and one idea of heading off to such conferences is also to come back inspired to peg on and achieve more than last time. My dream¬†of being at peace with a book in hand while commuting (I know!!) seems to be getting closer and closer to reality.

On the minority Indian – excerpts from Rome and Riyadh

I like to travel. By now, this is stale news. I don’t do museums and basilica’s so much as I do not relate so much to them. I try the food and being a foodie, there never needs to be a second invitation as far as that is concerned. Even for someone of my build, I take pleasure in walking around a new city instead of relying heavily on public transit. Ofcourse the temptation of using the public transit is very high thanks to the kind of work I do, but always remains minimal enough to make a judgement on the prevailing transport system and the (in)adequacies of the same. As much as walking around a new city is the best way to explore it, observing the immigrant communities and their ways of life in a new city, give a fair indication of how things work there. My short stints in Rome and later in Riyadh (on transit) were eye opening in that respect.

First things first, Rome could well be the next best thing to heaven. The city has a charm regardless of most of the ruins that make it up as of now. It is certainly a traveller’s delight in every respect – The Vatican, history, arts and culture, piazza’s and the ruins, the food, the gelati – all in all, a brilliant package of the old and new. Being the administrative powerhouse of Italy, Rome has tried its best to preserve the heritage that once made a civilization thrive along the city – outwards into Eastern Europe all the way into the Middle East and North Africa, which is a heart-warming sight. And ofcourse, Indians are aplenty in Rome. 5 minutes by foot and you inevitably bump into one. They are everywhere – on the subway (both the corridors and the trains), the sidewalks, running little shops, kebab places and ofcourse, traditional Indian places spread judiciously across the city.

Disturbingly though, many of these minority Indians are on the sidewalks selling one thing or the other, in every nook and cranny of the city – ranging from imitation goods to fancy items along the sidewalk. You might wonder why just Indians. Well, its not just them – there are Pakistani’s, Bangaldeshi’s, Sri Lankan’s as well – all in unison and in the effort of making a living. I wonder how they survive solely on these. Not having any bit of a steady income and considering how expensive the city of Rome is, it doesn’t make their predicament any bit easier. I might not have been surprised seeing this trend in Lisbon or Sofia, two of the cheapest and most affordable European capitals of the modern day. But fact remains that the sidewalks and the subway corridors in Lisbon are infested by the blacks – probably due to the close proximity to Africa and also due to the relation with the former colonies. Certainly the stance of the Vatican to safeguard the interests of those who come seeking protection also should be playing a role in this mass exodus. But seeing the economic climate of Italy and most of Europe, it is just about alarming.

I infact happened to meet a Malayali guy (they are just about everywhere!! ) who works as part of the nursing staff in one of the hospitals in Rome. He was telling me how difficult life had become, over the past 2 years. He started working at EUR 9/ hour, but was soon forced to cut down his wages to EUR 6/ hour in order to keep his job because there were many takers for the same position, even at this rate. And this decline, at a time when the inflation has kept taking the upside trend is surely not meant to help. The only way he manages to keep the boat from sinking (in his own words) is to work night shifts since they pay you more. Those have impacts on the long term as well. But everyone has a story at home to quote in their defense of such punishing schedules. The average minority Indian’s story goes on similar lines – whether he is in Europe, Asia or America.

Riyadh was pretty much similar as well, if not worse. I did not get to explore the city like Rome as I was on transit, but the time spent at the airport and on the flight to Chennai was good enough to gauge the situation. The boarding gate clearly resembling the open flood gates for prisoners who were out on parole. Many of those bore relieved looks, some were sporting wry half smiles, others were clearly trying to hide signs of fatigue (I was initially wondering all the whys ans the hows and later realized) from what most likely were punishing schedules again. It all got worse when the B777 I was in, had its cabins so full that the flight attendants had forced some of the hand baggage to be kept on the under belly because that was only half full, apparently.  For people who were going home after 2-3 years, this was supposed to be very unusual. Most often what we see are the big suitcases laden with goodies, stacked up one over the other in a taxi, home bound. Movies, ofcourse. But then, the reality of it was such.

My co-passenger was someone who hailed from Tindivanam dist, south of Chennai. He did not know his date of birth (even the passport acknowledged that), in his 50s and going home after 7 years. 7 years!!! I don’t even know how that feels. Misery got compounded when I was asked to fill his immigration form (he only knew Tamil). He was a very warm person, so I obviously obliged. I filled 22 more of these forms during the course of the flight. The lure to make a quick buck was taking many people out of the country. Most of the people back home in India are unawares of the kinds of jobs these guys are doing. They won’t be, so long as there is some trickling in of the funds and its a natural thing. But where they really building up stone castles or just as far as those with sand?? It looked more the latter to me.

Copenhagen Trails

Copenhagen was amazing. And it sure reiterates the difference that people speak about when Scandinavia comes into their minds. Despite the fact that it is one of the most expensive cities in the world, locking heads with Oslo (Norway), it is every bit worth the experience. The tall sloping roofs as seen above are a highlight to counter for the snow, the city is mad about cycling (55% copenhageners commute by cycles, and that’s about 800,000 people daily). More pictures and details in the subsequent posts.