Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Chicago with the GSA Family

Reflections. Short and fat, wavy and bulging, they were all around me. Standing under the Cloud Gate (or “The Bean” as it is popularly known) in Chicago’s Millenium Park, I was fulfilling a dream that I had since the day I had seen pictures of the stainless steel outdoor sculpture. Based on a design by Indian-born artist Anish Kapoor, the giant reflective structure could be called a photographers’ paradise and I had long wanted to shoot it. But that was only one of the many dreams that were being fulfilled during the Graduate Student Organization-organized Thanksgiving trip to Chicago.

The four day GSA trip started early on the gloomy Thanksgiving morning from NJIT. By the time we reached Chicago at night the mercury had dropped to 26 degrees Fahrenheit and most cafes and restaurants near our hotel had closed. However, thanks to a Dunkin Donuts and a Seven-Eleven within the block, everyone could soon settle down in their respective rooms. Well, everyone except the GSA President who had been “accidentally” allotted the same room as a honeymoon couple and he realized it only after he walked in. But that’s another story.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and soon we were in the bus once more, headed for the Museum of Science and Industry. On our way we crossed the Chicago River, saw the magnificent skyline, and drove along the shore of the majestic lake Michigan. Chicago, I felt, is a mix of the best things from New York and Washington DC since it has both open spaces and a lovely skyline. The museum itself was seen in a hurried manner, for GSA had given us CityPasses and we had a lot of other things to see. Among the things we saw there, a display of Christmas trees from around the globe, a US Navy submarine and an IMAX dome theatre show on the Hubble space telescope deserve special mention.

Since my childhood days, I have always wanted to see an aquarium but never got around to seeing one. That wish was destined to be fulfilled in Chicago. The Shedd Aquarium was the next on our route where we spent the rest of the day in a fish-watching frenzy. We also saw a 4-D movie and a live show with performing dolphins, seals and beluga whales. When we emerged from the aquarium it was already dark and the illuminated Chicago skyline stretched out sparkling beyond the lakeshore in front of us. It was a mesmerizing sight. I live near New York and I have seen Boston, Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Washington DC in the last couple of years. Each city has its own charm, but I feel as far as skylines are concerned, Chicago has the most unique skyline out of these cities. After gaping at the lights and taking pictures for some time, we rode the bus back to the hotel.

We had almost spent a day and still had a lot of other places to see. The next day was going to be busy, but that did not deter me and two friends from going out in search of some special dinner. Pizzeria Uno was only a few blocks away from our hotel, but the walk seemed a torture in the sub-freezing temperature and Chicago’s infamous wind. I had ordered an iced coffee to look cool and that compounded my miseries. Our problems did not end once we reached Pizzeria Uno. “Want to sit in? The waiting time is two hours. For take-outs it is just one hour,” said the girl at the counter. We chose the latter, but since the place was too crowded to sit and wait for an hour, another long hour of wandering about the freezing streets ensued. Eventually when we did get the deep dish pizza, we fought among ourselves to carry the hot box as we walked back to the hotel. I and three hungry friends could not finish a medium sized pie for dinner, which is pretty impressive even if you consider the fact that the three were girls on diet.

The next morning started with a cab ride to “The Bean” in the Millennium Park followed by the shooting spree described earlier. Later we walked to the Chicago Field Museum by the road along Lake Michigan. The weather, although cold and windy, was gloriously sunny and so the walk was very enjoyable. Our visit to the Field Museum was another touch-and-go affair. We had a Panini lunch at the museum cafĂ© and then visited Sue, the most complete T-Rex fossil in the world. After that we visited a real Egyptian tomb and looked at some stuffed birds and animals from Asia and Africa. We left at four and took a cab to Willis Tower. There was no time to see the Planetarium.

Willis Tower, formerly known as Sears Tower, is the tallest building in the United States. When we arrived at Willis Tower, there was still daylight. I had always wanted to see Chicago from Skydeck – the observation deck on the 103rd floor of the building. It was my idea to choose a time when we could both see the daylight and the night view. However, my plan would have failed pathetically if we did not have CityPasses. As we stood in the serpentine queue below the building, an official called for visitors with CityPasses and ushered us into the elevator ahead of the queue. Through the closing elevator doors, we heard the official tell the rest of the visitors that their wait time would be two hours. Ours was only a few minutes though. After a security check and another minute-long elevator ride, we found ourselves on top of the world. The sun was low in the sky and the place was heavily crowded. We took a look at Chicago and the lake from every side as the sun went down, saw the sunset and then proceeded to the most unique experience of all – The Ledge.

The Ledge at Skydeck is a glass box protruding out of the wall of Willis Tower into the sky. Or rather, there are three boxes like that. They are like tiny hanging balconies with glass floors. Standing in one of these boxes, one not only gets a 360 degree view of that side of Chicago but also gets the sickening feeling of peering between one’s feet and seeing nothing but a thousand feet of air. Scary as it may seem, it was evident that the glass floors are very, very strong because the boxes were filled like cans of sardines with tourists. We squeezed in somehow, saw the lights come on in Chicago and then slowly slipped out. As we walked out of the building, we noticed that the queue had grown even longer.

By the time we returned to our hotel, the Red Roof Inn, we were tired. Initially we had planned to go and see Navy Pier, but then laziness got the better of us. Also, all of us had a sudden urge to eat Chinese and so after a brief walk around the Chicago River, we walked to a nearby Chinese restaurant and had a delicious dinner. I and my friends ended the day with watching a movie on one of our laptops. Next morning the bus started early, and nearly everyone slept the first part of the journey. Later, however, as energy levels increased, we had a lot of fun playing games and singing songs in the bus. We reached NJIT at ten in the night.

When GSA had first proposed the Chicago trip for Thanksgiving, I had been sceptical about its success. “It will be too cold up there during Thanksgiving,” I had said, “and besides, the 15-hour long bus journey each way will be a pain.” What I had not considered at the time is the importance of spending the holiday with friends. During the actual trip, however, the cold and other problems took a backseat as we enjoyed the warmth of friendship and saw a new city with the only family members that we have in this home away from home. This trip made me realize once more that in spite of our differences, we at NJIT are all part of one big family, and this trip was one big family get together. And what’s a better way to spend a Thanksgiving break than spending it with family members?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

I have been busy.

Too busy to blog. Too busy to shop on Black Friday. Too busy to upload photos on my photoblog. Too busy even to read my favourite blogs and comment on them.

But I wasn’t too busy to go watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 on the day of its release, and to put it bluntly, the movie rocks. This is exactly what a Harry Potter movie should be like.

I would have been skeptical if this same opinion had come from another reviewer, because the last movie by the same director was everything a Harry Potter movie should not be. With unnecessary deviations from the storyline, large chunks of vital plot points left out, and important characters and details reduced to mere passing references, David Yates reduced the gripping sixth story into an intolerable headache. This time, however, by splitting up the story into two movies, he has been able to do justice to the little incidents that make the book such an interesting read. Another major plus point of the movie is the absence of Michael Gambon and his insufferable performance as a hot-headed Albus Dumbledore.

To be honest, the expectations were high. They are always unfairly high for a director directing a Harry Potter movie, because there are people like me who would go splitting hairs about specific dialogs and what a particular character’s hairstyle looks like. But at the end of the two and a half hours, even I had to say that I was as satisfied with the movie as I was with Chris Columbus’s first two movies.

Right from the initial seven Potters sequence, to the teen trio’s adventure in the ministry of magic, to Harry and Hermione’s visit to Godric’s Hollow, Harry finding the sword, and finally the happenings at Malfoy Manor and Luna’s house – every scene was nearly as I had imagined. There was the added bonus of a fantastic animated story-telling sequence within the movie. I won’t say much about the plot, although I doubt if there is anyone who hasn’t read the book and is still worried about spoilers while reading this blog. Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Tom Felton are magnificent as usual in their acting, and even Daniel Radcliffe seems to get the hang of it now.

Was it perfect? No. The failure to mention the taboo on Voldemort’s name left a vital plot point unexplained. I hoped to see the paintings on Luna’s ceiling. Wormtail was supposed to die because Harry had once saved his life – the film failed to mention that. Most importantly, the semi-nude kissing scene between Harry and Hermione was totally uncalled for. I know what the book says, and it could have been shown differently considering it is only a children’s movie. But then, no movie is ever perfect. Some only come very close to perfection.

Like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 did.