Brief history of an Indian’s driving adventures in America

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 8:32 PM

(This post is part of a series of write-ups about life in America, from an Indian’s perspective who recently moved to this country)

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to drive. I took to the wheel very early and have been driving on the roads for over a decade now. Driving in India was tough. Geared vehicles, heavy traffic and unruly two-wheelers. What I never realized through those times was that the whole exercise was preparing me to drive anywhere in the world. When we arrived in Chicago in August 2013, the right-hand side driving intimidated me no end. We do not own a car here, but those experiences riding in cabs rattled the day lights out of me. I was horrified at the thought of eventually taking on the wheel and steering myself on these roads. Unlike India, the left turn is a longer one and the right turn is a shorter one. Your steering wheel is on the left-hand side of the car and the fastest lane on the road is the left lane too. What scared me more were the surplus traffic signs and instructions on every single inch of this country. It’s all mapped out and a traffic violation can get you hefty fines sometimes amounting to $500! Everyone strictly drives in their lanes and the car’s odometer denotes distance in miles (and not kilometres).

So obviously, when I finally decided to take my driving test in March this year, I was a bundle of nerves. We hired a car (with insurance – which is a necessity for all vehicles here) and my husband gave me rudimentary driving lessons before the real big day (he is a fantastic driver, even in the US). I didn’t do great with the directions and my mind kept making me take reckless left turns and long right turns. We practiced parallel parking as well. I read and memorized the ‘Illinois – 2014 Rules of the Road’ guide by heart. And then came the test. My documents were verified and after furnishing two solid address proofs, came the vision test. I cleared that with ease. Next step was the written test which also, luckily, went well. It comprised mostly of identifying road signs and answering some questions about road safety (it’s always safest to select the most secure option). In my preparation, I had learnt amazing things like how everyone stopped their cars each time they saw a school bus boarding/unboarding children. Things like the ‘right to road’ and ‘yield’ were all very important lessons for the long term. I learnt that white lane lines meant one-way traffic and yellow center lines denote two-way traffic. Solid yellow lines mean no overtaking and broken yellow lines mean that one can overtake with caution. These learnings from carefully reading my road guide helped me sail through the written test too. And then came the third and last leg of my driving test travail. The actual driving test on the road with an instructor. The instructor was an old, quirky guy (nothing like my gentle lesson-giving husband) and after observing me drive for 15 long minutes, he failed me. Yes, for the first time in my life, I had actually failed a driving test. His reason – I was too slow. Obviously, I was gutted beyond belief. We chose to keep the car for another day and give it one more shot (only one trial is allowed per day). When we reached our parking spot the next morning, the car had a parking ticket stuck to the windshield. Fine of $150. The spot didn’t allow parking from 3am-6am. And obviously, because such a regulation was counterintuitive, we were surprised but ended up paying the fine anyway. Anyhow, my instructor was a friendly and warm young fellow this time who was more than happy with my driving and didn’t even make me do the complicated garage-reverse test. ‘I have seen enough’ is what he said. I was issued my driving licence instantly and voila, I was now a licensed driver in America, registered in the state of Illinois!

And thus started our most adventurous driving chronicles ever. My husband and I decided to undertake a cross-country drive from Chicago to New Jersey for the 4th of July holiday weekend. It involved 776 miles of driving (1249 kilometres) and cut across five states (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey). This long adventure required us to drive for 13 hours, one-way. We started off early in the morning and switched the driver’s seat every two hours. Leave alone driving on an expressway in America, I had never even driven on a highway in India! The roads though turned out to be extremely smooth and the cruise-control feature on our automatic sedan was a god-sent. We made three pit-stops for gas (I had packed food for the journey in advance) and were able to make it to New Jersey by midnight (you lose an hour when you go from Chicago to NJ because of a time-zone difference. Even within the US, four different time zones operate. Such is the magnitude of the land monstrosity in this country). Our 10-hour drive in the day was a cake walk. Long easy sweeps of seamless roads. Right-most lane reserved for trucks and the remaining lanes for cars. After my initial hesitation with the speeds (you can get a ticket if you go slower than the minimum speed limit too), I was able to gain firm control on the wheel. The minimum expressway speed limit is set at 45mph in most cases. The maximum is set between 70-80mph in most states too (rules and laws changes in every state). It is however common practice to reach a speed limit of 10mph over your permitted speed limit and set your car to cruise control, the auto-pilot. Once you set the speed, you are almost sure that you won’t over speed and hence save yourself the trouble of being caught by a state trooper (term used here for a traffic cop). The state of Ohio had a state trooper parked after almost every five miles, reading people’s cruising speeds. The state of Pennsylvania had deep gorges and was beautiful to drive through and click. The last three hours of our journey, however, involved driving through the night. Those were probably the most taxing moments. Craning our necks to follow the yellow lines blindly on the road. We passed a fog-zone too where the windscreen totally fogged up and we had to stop to clean it up. Deer zones were crossed too, where actual deer can actually jump out into the middle of the road and sometimes ram into your car. Finally after both of us had rendered stiff unbearable necks, we made it to our destination. The weekend with family was sheer bliss. For the drive back, we made full use of the daylight (summer days here stretch from 5am to 9pm) and didn’t have to drive at all at night. Crazy story to tell our kids… check.

The next drive happened between Houston and Dallas on a trip to Texas. This time our car was a hatch-back and the drive was just 4-hours long. It almost ended too soon for us and we got just 2 hours each behind the wheel. The roads were the same stretches of butter (metaphorically, of course) and the drive was as big a joy as the last one. Except that it was much hotter, because this was scorching Texas.

We now occasionally rent a car to drive around Chicago and get chores done. My fear of driving in America has evaporated progressively through this one year. I now find it easier and much more enjoyable than driving in India. People are civil and no one flouts traffic rules (mostly). 911 is at your service in case you ever meet with an accident (which we haven’t, thankfully) and the non-geared automatic cars are a delight. I have finally made peace with right-hand side driving and having the driver’s seat on the left-hand side of the car. I am amazed at how the road network has been so evenly laid out all across the USA. At some places, I have seen as many as seven fly-overs stacked one on top of another. The word ‘urbanization’ had swirled in my head several times. My new worry is an upcoming trip to India and how I would adjust back to driving on unruly roads with violent traffic and geared cars. But at least I feel elated with the realization that I am now equipped to drive easily anywhere else in the world :) A little bravado goes a long way in liberating you from your fears. Always make the extra effort!


The US Chronicles: A Welcome Pitcher of Coffee!

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 8:37 PM

(With this post starts a series of write-ups about life in America, from an Indian’s perspective who recently moved to this country)

It all started with the advent of the Coffee Mania. From the day I arrived in Chicago almost a year ago, I have constantly been baffled by the number of coffee mugs consumed by each person, per day. Across colleges and offices, the day starts with either a strong Espresso (black coffee), Cappuccino (espresso, milk and milk froth), Americano (a single shot of espresso added to a cup of hot water), Caffe Latte (single shot of espresso added to three parts of steamed milk), Caf au Lait (traditional French drink similar to caffe latter, except a weaker form), Caf Mocha (cappuccino or caffe latte with chocolate syrup or powder) or Caramel Macchiato (combination of espresso, caramel and foamed milk). On almost every desk is a steaming mug of coffee, exuding delicious aromas every morning and enticing you to buy a mug of your own.

As you down your first cup, it’s time for a refill in a couple of hours. As the day progresses further beyond noon, out comes the post-lunch wake-up coffee. This coffee keeps you alert and restrains you from falling asleep on your desk or work station after a hearty meal. As evening approaches, come more mugs of coffee to keep you focused till you wrap up and get done for the day. And there is no dearth of coffee shops to appeal to all types of tastes. The most famous ones are of course Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Caribou Coffee Company Inc., Tim Hortons and Dunkin’ Donuts. Office-goers go here because of the ease of accessibility. Students are found thronging these chains too and lots of coffee is consumed over chat sessions that last several hours. Extra points go to Starbucks for making coffee ‘cool’. Free wi-fi availability at some of these locations make them even more appealing. Gloria Jean’s Coffee, Lavazza, Panera Bread, Aroma Espresso Bar, PJ’s Coffee, Tully’s Coffee, Port City Java and Coffee Beanery are some of the other chains that see mass following from daily coffee consumers. Non-traditional coffee outlets like McDonald’s have gone the extra mile to aggressively brand and sell their coffee as well.

To me, it sometimes feels like drinking coffee is not merely a hobby, but a sport in America. Like all sports, people have staunch loyalties about taste and source. Some sophisticated elite who only have their coffee with butter and attend coffee-tastings (the regal aura of this activity would put wine-tasting to shame) throw a distasteful scorn at Starbucks. Their coffee preferences reflect their cultural and social persona. For others, coffee means social get-togethers and they are fully capable of enjoying a simple mug of Iced Coffee and Lattes at Dunkin’ Donuts. Whatever coffee might mean to anyone, the irrefutable truth about living in America is that you love your cuppa.

I and my husband were in New Orleans for Christmas last year. A family member introduced us to a new form of coffee – the Cold Brew (marketed by the New Orleans Coffee Company). Cold Brew basically refers to the process of steeping coffee grounds in room temperature or cold water for an extended period of time. This liquid form of coffee needs to be kept frozen and can quickly be mixed with some water or milk to render some lip-smacking coffee. My husband took a real liking to Cold Brew and now my freezer is jammed with its various varieties, including one in hazelnut flavor! Cold Brews can also be found in popular food chains like Trader Joe’s but are a tad bit more expensive than regular coffee.

Another coffee find in New Orleans was America’s most popular coffee shop – Café Du Monde (800 Decatur Street at the French Market in New Orleans, LA). We made multiple visits to this café during our trip and invariably always ended up waiting in queues before being seated. The joint was forever teeming with hoards of eager tourists and coffee-lovers. Everyone wanted a chicory-laced caf au lait and the addictive sugar-dusted beignets. Beignets are pastries made from deep-fried choux paste (made of butter, water, flour and eggs). They are served as a dessert in the US and come with heaps of powdered sugar mounted on top. Warm beignets make perfect companions with hot coffee and can taste good at any time of the day!

A survey was conducted by Live Science, Coffee 4 Dummies and Coffee Research and released on July 12th, 2014. It presents interesting facts about coffee consumption in the US. The survey reveals that 54% of total Americans (over the age of 18 years) drink coffee every day. The average size of a coffee mug is 9 ounces. The average price of an expresso-based drink is $2.45. Almost 35% of the total coffee drinkers prefer black coffee. An average coffee drinker consumes 3.1 mugs of coffee daily. 65% coffee-drinkers added cream or sugar to their coffee. The total amount of money spent on importing coffee to the US each year is a whopping $4 billion!

According to the Huffington Post, Chicago tops the list of America’s Ten Most Caffeinated cities. It is followed closely by New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC, San Jose, Portland (Oregon), Miami and Minneapolis. The ranks were decided by analyzing average household spending at city coffee shops, based on data from 20 million anonymous Visa and MasterCard holders. The larger pictures that I am trying to paint here is that coffee consumption in America is a serious business. Surveys are conducted to gauze coffee spends, extensive research is undertaken to stay abreast of people’s changing taste preferences and Starbucks remains the third most popular food chain in America (after McDonald’s and Subway).

I somehow still haven’t caught on to the trend. But my husband seems to have mounted the coffee bandwagon with gusto. At work and in school, he is a loyal Starbucks patron. At his business school, one can get a coffee refill for just $1 if they carry their own coffee mug. Each time I sit with him to audit a class (spouses have the liberty to do that here), students all around us have their proud coffee mugs mounted on the tables. Breakfast can be skipped but skipping coffee is a strict no-no. Professors sometimes have coffee mugs of their own perched perilously at the edge of their lectern. My sense of wonder and amazement refuses to die down. I still relate more easily to cup of tea than I do the addictive mug of coffee. But that hasn’t stopped me from looking up and experimenting with creating different coffee tastes in my own kitchen. I am far from good at being a competitive coffee chef, but I do hope to catch on one day. Till then, Starbucks zindabaad.

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