Observing the skies

Once every while in life, we make a random decision that turns out to be one of the best we’ve ever made. Visiting the Griffith Observatory was one of those decisions for me.

I was with my colleagues in Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles when I realised I’d had enough. I’d already looked up the Observatory, and although I didn’t know what I’d see there, I knew I wanted to go.

Astronomers monument - Griffith Observatory

Astronomers monument

It was quite a long train ride (Vermont/Sunset Metro Red Line) from Hollywood Blvd. However, the best thing about public transport is that you could to go the whole length of the city, and observe life without stopping or taking shortcuts. It’s not just about the destination but also about the journey itself.

Low-cost buses run every 15 minutes to and from the Observatory. I got on one—the Dash Observatory bus—and it took me along a winding path up a steep hill. As we drove I saw private vehicles struggling to find parking spaces all along the mountain—a common occurrence in most places in the United States, but a phenomenal one nonetheless.

As the bus stopped, and I got down, my jaw dropped. I’d let that happen plenty of times during the trip already, and I didn’t care that it’d happen many more times for the rest of the trip.

Before me stood a magnificent dome and square-shaped building. In front of it was a large lawn with a statue of six famous astronomers. Nodding hello to and taking a picture of Hipparchus, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and John Herschel, I walked towards the entrance of the building.

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Even as I passed the astronomers, I noticed how there was something to gawk at everywhere I turned. A bronze armillary sphere, a sundial, the Hollywood sign, and the magnificent views of the LA skyline kept me hooked longer than I’d anticipated.

As I entered, I came upon the solar system. Called the Wilder Hall of the Eye, there were exhibits with detailed explanations of the Milky Way, star clusters, ancient telescopes, animated displays of olden time-telling methods, models and artifacts that depict the beginning of sky watching in California, and the most notable of all—the Tesla Coil. Although I didn’t see the sparks of electricity, I felt a thrill run down my spine as I realised what it meant to be standing in the presence of some of the greatest scientific achievements humankind has ever made.

Stepping further within the building, I stopped in my tracks for a moment. A vast hallway had opened up in front of me, its painted ceiling arching high above. I craned my neck to see the Greek-style artwork—Hugo Ballin murals—all around the sky and upper walls. And in the middle, stood Foucault’s pendulum that demonstrates the Earth’s rotation.

Unable to tear my eyes away from the sheer glory of everything that surrounded me, I stood transfixed for a while before giving in to the mad desire of getting everything in one picture. I’d never taken so many photos or videos in one place, but I still couldn’t capture the euphoria of witnessing it live.

On the other side, there were exhibits I was more familiar with—videos displaying the phases of the moon, the earth’s rotation, paths of the sun and stars, seasons, eclipses, tides, and the elements of the periodic table. At the end of it was a live image of the sun along with sun-watching gadgets and NASA videos of the sun.

Skipping the planetarium show, I went back outside to get a glimpse of the looming telescope.

Walking away from what looked like a coffee shop, I strode along the corridor staring at the views, making my way to the viewing area. A small queue later, I faced the large telescope pointed right at the planet Venus. Every half hour, the guard on duty shifts the telescope a few inches to match its movement. As I watched the small, round Venus, half hidden by the clouds and the sun, I couldn’t help but wonder at how much we’ve managed to pierce the mysteries of the sky.

So many things in the universe that we wouldn’t have heard of or seen are now common textbook knowledge. It made me understand how tiny, how small our lives are, as compared to the expanse of matter out there.

With that shuddering thought, I made my way back.

And until a few hours ago, I didn’t realise that I’d missed an entire range of exhibits in the lower levels of the Observatory. The lower level begins from the Café at the End of the Universe, a restaurant operated by the renowned chef, Wolfgang Puck. My bad, I should’ve researched the place before going there. I’m disappointed. But if you’re ever in the vicinity, you shouldn’t miss this place—it’s a great way to make an afternoon enchanting.


Well, hello there, Hollywood!

The only time I had the opportunity to visit Hollywood, I didn’t want to. My colleagues and I were in Pasadena for an event and we’d spent the weekend afternoon in a rather unusual way at the Santa Monica beach and pier.

Next stop, my team was all jumpy about it, was to be Hollywood. After all, as one of my friends pointed out, we were so close that it’d be a shame not to stop by. For you see, even in the nation that gave Bollywood to the world, the American version is quite popular.

Except, I didn’t want to go.

However, peer pressure works in weird ways and having spent the first half of my day with the team, I gave in and ended up taking the window seat in the cab. Our destination was the Walk of Fame. I wasn’t sure what incredible experiences awaited us, but my fellow travellers seemed to know what they were doing. And so for the first time in a long time, I just went along with someone else’s plans.

About 20-30 minutes later, our driver pulled up. It was time to get down. Just before the doors opened, I happened to turn to my left. There, nestled amidst the fog and the mountains, was a big fancy sign—Hollywood. We were there.

Hollywood sign as seen from Hollywood Blvd

Hollywood sign as seen from Hollywood Blvd.

I pointed it out to my colleagues and in a fleeting second, their dreams shattered. They hadn’t expected to see the sign that way—crouching, peeping through a rather spotted glass window, squinting to get a better view. But that was it. We’d seen the sign.

Our driver seemed to share our disappointment, although for another reason altogether. Hearing frustrated “ahem”s, we realised with a jolt that we should let him go. Thanking and apologising at the same time, we got down looking all sides for the Walk of Fame. We turned this way and that for a while trying to spot directions before I looked down and saw I was standing right on top of it.

The sidewalks on both sides of the street was the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

“So what next?” I asked my colleagues. We’d seen the Hollywood sign, we’d walked the Walk of Fame. The only thing left to do—in my opinion—was to go back or go elsewhere. For goodness sake, we’d even seen a statue of Lord Ganesh!

Everywhere I turned, tourists clutching over-priced souvenirs, licking extra-large ice creams, or wearing over-the-top hats. People pointed in random directions, peered at their mobile maps, got on an off tourist buses. A few locals strode in and out of shopping malls, branded bags weighing them down. It was a hot spot, for sure. But boring unless you have a ton of money and the excitement to spend it all right away.

I’d had enough. But my friends had other ideas. They wanted to visit the Madame Tussauds wax museum down the street, and then grab lunch at the California Pizza Kitchen.

Excusing myself, I walked in search of the nearest train station. I caught some interesting attractions along the way, but I’d had enough of Hollywood. I headed, instead, to the Griffith Observatory.

Hello LA

About a month ago, on a bright Friday afternoon, my colleagues and I few into Los Angeles International Airport. We were in town for five days before flying off to Chicago, then to New York City, and at last to Miami.

We were travelling as part of a roadshow and so we all knew we had too little time in each city to do much sightseeing. Thanking the weekends we’d spend in Pasadena and New York City, we left the airport eager to check in at the hotel and check out the city.

As I looked about, trying to find our ride, my eyes fell on a gorgeous Tesla. My jaw dropped. I had no idea when (if at all) I’d ever see a Tesla back home, and my instinct forced me to pull out my camera phone. It was a green, sleek, and slender machine cruising its way through a buzz of busy vehicles trying to pick up travellers and get out of the airport.

Tesla on the streets of LA

Tesla on the streets of LA

For a while I remained stunned, surprised to see such grandeur as part of everyday lifestyle. But soon enough, I saw another one—a white this time—in the same pickup area.

A Tesla is as any other car, I realised. Sure, it’s expensive and elite and makes people gawk with jealousy, but at the end of the day, it’s just another car. It surprised me that there were so many people who could afford Teslas and drive it around town like a casual Toyota.

As we drove through the city, I saw more Teslas and other fancy cars, their drivers wearing a seat belt, focussing on the road—like all other drivers driving smaller cars. But of course, even the smaller and casual cars were far fancier and pricier than anything I’d seen.

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And it dawned on me a few minutes later. California is one the richest states in the US. With Hollywood and Silicon Valley just a few miles away, Teslas on the street were an average thing for LA folk.

The cars were the first thing I saw and they served me a pretty large slice of what life’s like in Los Angeles. It was amazing to me that while halfway across the world people struggled to sustain each day, people here basked in others’ jealously with reckless abandon.

It was just the beginning. I had a lot more to see.

Watching the skies

Griffith Observatory, LA

Griffith Observatory, LA

Kills human ego

a speck in a telescope

a fire ball despite