2013 October
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How am I fighting winter at Berkeley?

Winter in Berkeley for me has always been dreadful – I get to see the Sun for less than 8 hours (50% less than the usual 12 hours of sunlight I am used to India.) and there is no warmth in the light. This pushes me to hibernate. I wake up late, I am drowsy the whole day and I go to bed early. October to February is a disaster. I don’t know what I would have done had I accepted my admission to SNRE at University of Michigan or Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

My PhD qualifying exam is 40 days away and I have a lot of reading to do. So I want to wake up early to get some quality reading time. I find mornings very productive. But I have to fight cold and drowsiness. I never had this problem when I spent summer in Kathmandu. There, the chirping of the birds woke me up at 5:00am. A cup of chai and some breakfast got me going. Here, in Berkeley, nothing is helping – Coffee or Tea has random effect on me. Sometimes, Caffeine keeps me awake and alert but most of the times I go to sleep within 15 minutes of having a cup of black tea. So I came up with a plan.

I went cold turkey with Caffeine. I stopped my caffeine consumption completely. First three days, I suffered severe headaches. Next three days – lethargy, body pain, nausea, lack of appetite. It slowly started getting better after a week. Within 12 days, I was feeling better. In two weeks, caffeine was out of my system. After this exercise, I don’t get any headaches when I miss my afternoon tea or coffee. I am now very sensitive to caffeine. If I have caffeine after 2pm, I cannot go to sleep before midnight. Caffeine now has a very predictable effect on me. My goal is to stop consuming it fully by January 2014 (soon after my quals).

If I can get out of bed early in the morning, there is caffeine to keep me awake. But the challenge is to get out of the bed. To combat cold and to feel comfortable when I am out of bed, I now go to sleep with a pair a socks, beanie, and thermal wear next to me. When the alarm goes off in the morning, I wake up, put on all the layers and then get out of bed. I don’t feel any cold. I am active as soon as I get out of the bed 🙂 It has been almost a month. The practice has been quite effective

I have realized that sitting and reading on bed puts me to sleep (what was I expecting?). I now read either at my desk or in the kitchen. I walk around and read out loud when I feel sleepy. I have to print dense readings as I easily lose track when I read on my computer or tablet.

I am finding qualifying exam as a great opportunity to push myself to confront some of my chronic habits – waking up late, consuming too much caffeine, exercising and meditating infrequently, spending too much time on the internet, not allocating time daily to read and write. My hope is to pass my qualifying exam while fighting these bad habits.

Manipulative Banking – The new norm

I now and then miss my payment due date. Yes, the bank will be fast enough to slap a fee on me. I usually call them and they reverse it for me as they can see from my history that I am good with payments and mistakes happen. But I just realized how out of control credit cards and other loans can get in the era of technology and fine prints.

In the era of technology, people who are not comfortable with online banking, people who don’t have any alerts (phone or email) set up for “fee slapping” will miss out on the action and their credit report will start reflecting this fee even before these people know that there was a missed payment. This is also the era of lack of self-control from the end of customer and the era of art of manipulation from the end of the banks. Every bank wants to give you a credit card so that you lose track of your shopping habits and payment deadlines. The sooner and more often this happens, better it is for the bank, as they can start preying on us. A legislation should protect people from being manipulated. Even the constitution should be amended to say that “bankers will not manipulate people”. Manipulative banking is violence.

I have eight credit cards. I am going to bring them down to four by this month end – one Visa, one Master, one Discover and one American Express. I am extremely good at keeping track of payments and even then I miss deadlines once in a year or two as I get busy with other things in life. I am now thinking of what old people, people who are not good with technology endure in this era of predation. Mint.com has been extremely helpful in tracking my expenditures and incomes. I strongly recommend using mint.

I have realized that the best way to cut down on debt is to keep all my cards locked away. I carry one card with me. I use mint and go through my transactions everyday to keep myself aware of my transactions. This has considerably reduced my expenditures.

Is it the distance?

I claim myself to be a considerable, sensitive and rational person. But that claim seems dubious when I realize that I don’t really care as deeply as I should about some of the important issues that are affecting the larger society. I have thought about this contradiction and here is my hypothesis – I think it is my distance from these issues that makes me think about them less deeply. There seems to be a armour of impersonality that chokes the flow of emotions between two creatures.

I don’t fret about large dams.  I am fine with over consumption and unsustainable management of resources. I continue to consume water and electricity harnessed at a far away place without really thinking about any local solutions such as rainwater harvesting or solar power. The reason for my insensitivity could be that I don’t have to personally go and push people away from their villages to submerge their lands. I am emotionally involved in the issue as I have recruited the Government to be my agent! I am not seeing any immediate harm. I have vested my government with all the powers to commit the necessary crime and coercion, induce the misery on my behalf!

I no longer get singled out for the crimes I am committing on nature and hence on the people and animals who are dependent on it. Now there is a system in place, supported by corporate and media, which worships and encourages reckless consumption. The abstractness of “class” makes it difficult to pinpoint the victim. There is strength in numbers. I want others to drive less and consume less. I am upset with everyone else except myself. When I scorn at this ugly world, I forget that I too am part of that world and most of the times that scorn should be directed inwards as I have played an important role in bringing this world to this point!

Only when interactions get personal can I learn to think and feel about the world deeper than I do now. People ask me, why is it that some Indians worship cow and don’t eat it? For the same reason that you don’t treat your dog as food! Admittedly, dog meat may not be as tasty as beef, but it is not a practice for people to kill their dogs! Why? Because dogs are part of the family. They are closer to your heart. Cows have supported families in India by providing them with milk and dung. Milk provided the necessary calories and nutrients in the form of food while dung was a source of fuel.  It is easy for people to be emotional and spiritual when it comes to cows because that is the kind of interaction they have had with cows all these years. The relationship with livestock is not purely economic. Now a days, there is a distance between our life and the consequences of our lifestyle! I no longer have to worry about the cows or any other animals. I have outsourced these interactions and hence in a way has fuelled all the cruelty.

My interaction with nature these days is completely impersonal! Hence I have no real connection with people, animal, trees, insects and other natural beings around us! This lack of connection is hollowing me out making me all shallow and self-centred! I am distant from the activities that are needed to make me feel connected to the world. I don’t grow my own food own – hence rains piss me off! I don’t build things these days! I just buy stuff. Hence there is no attachment to save it or make it work! I have no idea of what goes into resource mining and where all the waste ends up! A world without emotions is purely mechanical, metallic, toxic! Now a days, I wonder how many of us really enjoy the basics of life – food, friendship, and love, when the media is constantly reconditioning us how to live, love, buy, and be unhappy all the time! At the risk of sounding like a hippy, I want so say that world’s problems can be solved only if we re-establish the connection with the natural world! And yes, that does not mean camping in Yellowstone or backpacking in Yosemite!

Amtrak Passenger FAQs

Answers are from my own personal travel as of December 2013

  1. Where should you sit if you are taking California Zephyr?
    The scenery switches a lot between left and right side. Also, what you see depends on whether you are travelling from or to Chicago. I sat towards the Northern side (left side of the train) and enjoyed the scenery a lot. I would say, if you can, sit to your left on first day and to your right on the second day (if you are travelling form Emeryville to Chicago)
  2. How comfortable is coach class on California Zephyr to sleep?
    I found it to be very comfortable. Carry your own blanket and pillow. People around you might snore (I snore, fyi) and hence it helps to carry ear plugs.
  3. Are there electrical outlets in coach class?
    Yes. One per seat. But I carried a multi-socket strip with me as I had multiple devices to charge (laptop and my phone).
  4. Can I sit anywhere inside the coach?
    Yes. There is also an observation dome to better experience panoramic views.
  5. Is there a shower facility inside the train for coach class travellers? No. Carry some shower wipes as an alternative. And yes, deodorants help.
  6. Is there a microwave available for coach class travellers?
    No. Pantry car does have microwave ovens but the panty car people will politely reject your request by stating some FDA regulation related to food safety.
  7. Is there any kind of refrigeration system available for coach class travellers?
    No. But you can get ice to keep your medications.
  8. How many times can I change my reservation if I have a USA rail pass? Rail pass is for coach class. You can change your coach class reservations as many times as you want. But if your upgrades and other reservations might incur a cancellation / change fee.
  9. Will I be charged for ticket changes?
    I changed my tickets a few times and I had a USA rail pass. I was not charged for any of those changes.
  10. Why is it that I don’t see my rail pass booking on Amtrak website? Only bookings made through the website are available for online access. Though you may buy your USA rail pass online, you have to call Amtrak to make your reservations. Hence you will not see your reservation details online.
  11. I lost my booking information email. What should I do?
    Since you cannot retrieve your booking online, you have to call Amtrak and they will resend your email.
  12. Can I carry some personal stash of alcohol?
    Many people did and many people drank alcohol at their seats.
  13. Is there internet access in California Zephyr?
    No. Long distance trains don’t have internet. Only some commuter trains along the eastern corridor have internet.
  14. Why shouldn’t I board at Berkeley?
    Berkeley is a local station. If you are taking long distance trains, boarding at Emeryville or Richmond will save you a stop (changeover in Sacramento) and hence a segment on your pass. Also, since Berkeley is an unmanned station, you cannot check your bags in.
  15. When should I print my tickets? Two days before your journey day. That way you can save on rail pass cancellation charges if you decided to cancel your trip.
  16. What food should I carry?
    YES! The train food served on-board is expensive and is tasteless. If you are a vegetarian, you have even fewer options. During later part of my train journey, I learnt that it is better to pack two meals from places like Chipotle so that you can eat them during your journey. Of course, dry fruits and packaged food will also be very useful.
  17. What are the important things that I should carry when I travel long distance?
    If you are travelling coach class, carry a blanket, ear plugs, eye mask. It can get quite cold during the night.

Across America on Amtrak

I have to attend a research workshop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 16 December. By then, I would be done with my Ph.D. qualifying exam. I have to be in USA till mid-January to get a cheaper ticket to fly back to India. Since I don’t have any family in USA to visit during Christmas, I have decided to visit my friends in north-east and north-west of USA. As I have plenty of time, it is time for me to explore USA through its trains. After some research, I decided that 30 day, 12 segment USA rail pass is the best option for my travelling during the month of December and January. I bought the USA rail pass on October 16 and made reservations.

The exciting part is, I will be saving a ton of carbon, exploring some of the remotest parts of USA, travelling comfortably while it is snowing outside, experiencing the train culture of USA, getting to know what it is to live in the northern parts of this country during winter. It has been more than three years for me in Berkeley. In summer 2011, I travelled across the country in a car with my parents. I was busy and tired driving. Yes, driving in certain parts of this country is a great experience but I have always been a huge fan of travelling by trains and there is nothing like peering through a window into the remoteness and vastness of this country.

I’m looking forward to the journey with excitement and anxiety. I’m travelling coach class. I know that it is not very comfortable to travel for 84 hours from Emeryville to Philadelphia. But the sleeper class will end up to be thrice as expensive. Also, I don’t want to spend a lot of money buying food on the train. I have to figure out how to optimally carry food for four days and if possible, some alcohol, so that I can get some good sleep during the night. I will soon be writing another post which will list all the questions that I had in my mind and the answers I found through different websites and my own personal travel experience. Stay with me!

Train Name Departure Station Arrival Station Duration States (26 States in all)
Emeryville Chicago
California Zephyr Dec 12th 9:10am Dec 14th 2:50pm 51hr 40min CA, NV, UT, CO, NB, IO, IL (7 new)
Chicago Philadelphia
Cardinal / Hoosier State Dec 14th 5:45pm Dec 15th 8:20pm 25hr 35min IL, IN, OH, KY, WV, VA, DC, MD, DL, PA (8 new)
Philadelphia Newark Will be in Philadelphia for 7 days
164 Northeast Regional Dec 21st Dec 21st 1hr 10min PA, NJ (1 new)
Newark Boston Will be in Newark area for 5 days
170 Northeast Regional Dec 27th 7:57 am Dec 27th 12:44pm 4hr 47min NJ, NY, CT, MA (3 new)
Boston Chicago Will be in Boston for 3 days
449 Lake Shore Limited Dec 30th 12:00pm Dec 31st 9:45am 22hr 45min MA, NY, OH, IN, IL (0 new)
Chicago Seattle Will be in Chicago for 3 days
7 Empire Builder Jan 3rd 2:15pm Jan 5th 10:25am 46hr 10min IL, WI, MN, ND, MT, ID, WA (6 new)
Seattle Emeryville Will be in Seattle for 4 days
11 Coast Starlight Jan 9th 9:35am Jan 10th 8:10am 22hr 35min WA, OR, CA (1 new)