Thursday, January 7, 2010

back from Chicago and the Atlantic Northeast

"So we have a lawyer in our car... does that mean I can get out of speeding tickets?" -- Dad

I just got back from an 11-day trip to the Lake Michigan area and the Atlantic Northeast with my parents. That was awesome as we saw many sights and reconnected with family and friends. It was one heck of an adventure!

You may recall that we stayed a night in Chicago during our trip to Spain last summer. I had hoped to hang out with my cousins and see neighboring states, but there was no time for either. I've suggested we should revisit the Great Lakes area ever since. Dad apparently liked the idea. :-)

Yet this trip was a bit different: the main purpose of going to Chicago and the Atlantic Northeast was to look at universities to which I've applied. However, that doesn't mean we didn't have fun. Here is the trip report for your reading pleasure!

Day 1

It was a hectic morning as there was a lot of packing to do. We had barely finished breakfast when our family friend Karen whisked us off to the airport. Despite the increased security due to the Northwest Airlines incident two days ago, the check-in process was quick - aside from me getting a TSA pat down.

The flight to Chicago was fairly smooth. The long lines at the car rentals made the wait in the cold seem like forever. Dad took us to my great-aunt Shu-Ying's warm and cozy house after getting a car. I saw my cousins Eric, William, Frank and Jennifer, and uncles Da-Wei and Peter. This was my first time seeing Frank in years as he was out of town last time.

Once everything was unpacked, all of us went to Royal Buffet for dinner. This is the same restaurant we ate at on our trip to Spain. The food was delicious and quickly filled me up. Jennifer had to work but still met with us later.

Da-Wei took me to his place in Darien after a short break at Shu-Ying's house. Dad knew I wanted to spend more time with my cousins and had arranged for me to stay at their home for the next three nights. As embarrassing as it sounds, this was my first real sleepover!

Eric and William were watching their favorite football team, the Chicago Bears, play against the Minnesota Vikings. The Bears won the game, much to our delight. I generally don't follow American football but enjoyed rooting for the Bears with my cousins.

The boys and I played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on the Xbox 360 afterwards. Though I prefer classic shooters like Doom and Quake over modern ones, Call of Duty turned out to be lots of fun. Of course, "everything in moderation" applies to gaming too: because it was getting late, all of us soon headed to bed.

Day 2

Da-Wei brought me back to Shu-Ying's house after breakfast. Everyone then gathered to pay respects to my late great-uncle Chi-Ming at a nearby cemetery. Those who follow my blog may notice this trip is starting to sound familiar!

It was then time to hit the road. The first stop was Northwestern University in Evanston. There was a homely feel to the place. Some offices were open, and we were lucky enough to run into two statistics professors who provided lots of useful information. The meeting ended around noon, but because there were no nearby restaurants, lunch consisted of whatever we could find in the car.

The next destination was the University of Chicago. Dad found a lounge with Wi-Fi and decided to reply to his e-mails. This took a while given the sheer number of messages. There was time to explore the campus, although we only took a few pictures because it was super chilly outside.

One thing I wanted to do was to visit nearby states. To that end, Dad took us to Indiana and Michigan later in the afternoon. Things didn't go without a hitch: at one rest area, I accidentally spilled some water while handing it to my father and got an earful. Thanks, Dad.

Our itinerary originally included Ohio University and Toledo, but we realized the overhead was too high and turned back after crossing the Indiana-Michigan border. On the other hand, my family had a great dinner in Chicago's Chinatown before returning to Shu-Ying's house. I'd love to visit Ohio University in the future as it was my late uncle Harrison's graduate alma mater.

Da-Wei brought me to his place after we got back to Chicago. I got to play Ninja Gaiden II on the Xbox 360 for the first time. That game really looked fun when I saw my old suitemate Bryan play it last April. It certainly didn't disappoint.

Day 3

Peter joined us on our trip to Madison. Because it was around noon when we arrived, the four of us went to McDonald's for lunch and coffee first. Funnily enough, Dad spilled his coffee while getting in the car. Oops. Can anyone say karma?

The University of Wisconsin–Madison campus was beautiful, especially in winter. I got some great pictures even though the school was closed for the holidays. The others needed something to keep them warm, so we went to Burger King for more coffee.

A nearby point of interest was Lake Monona. Mom suddenly realized she had left her hat and Dad's gloves at Burger King as we pulled into the parking lot. Oh crap. After hurrying back there, my parents had everything accounted for. That was a close call.

At any rate, it was neat to walk on the thick ice on Lake Monona and watch people fish for bluegill. One could hardly imagine anything would be alive under all that ice. I've seen ice fishing in pictures but had never witnessed it in person. I'd say this was - pardon the pun - the coolest part of the trip.

The plan was to stay a night in Madison and drive along the Mississippi River to Minnesota and Iowa, but we figured this would also take too much time. I guess that's something to consider for the future. The last stop in Madison was Starbucks as Dad needed to reply to more e-mails. The café was a nice place to relax and escape from the cold. I took the opportunity to treat Mom to a cup of latte. :-)

We had another nice dinner on the way back to Chicago. Though it was late when we arrived at Da-Wei's house, I got to play Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock on the PlayStation 2 with Eric and William. This was another great game.

Day 4

Dad picked me up around noon and took me back to Shu-Ying's house for lunch, after which we headed to downtown Chicago with Peter accompanying us again. The John Hancock Center and Water Tower Place were huge and filled with stores. This easily took up the entire afternoon.

For New Year's Eve, my father invited his extended family to dinner at the Lee Wing Wah Restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown. Our party arrived early with the intention of exploring the area, but the freezing weather made us change our minds. Therefore, the four of us decided to chill out (or rather, warm up) at the restaurant instead.

On the subject of which, the food was pretty good. After everyone was done, Dad asked for the bill and was told that it was already paid for. It turned out my aunt Sue secretly picked up the tab. That made us feel guilty for sure. ^_^

All of us then went to Da-Wei's place. I played some more Ninja Gaiden II before counting down to 2010 with our relatives. The party was another highlight of our vacation. As much as we hated to leave, my family went back to Shu-Ying's house shortly after midnight as we had an early flight to catch.

Be sure to read my New Year's Day post for more details.

Day 5

Happy New Year!

The 8:30 a.m. flight meant we had to get up no later than 6 a.m. To say I was sleepy would be an understatement. The three of us had a quick breakfast and bid farewell to our relatives before going to O'Hare to return the car and check in.

I got stopped by the TSA again on way to the terminal. Lucky me. The flight wasn't too bad as we got some rest on the plane. The not-so-fun part is that Mom spilled her coffee all over my lap. Holy crap. Is this some kind of curse?

The plane landed at JFK three hours later. Dad rented another car and took us to his friend JJ's house in Morganville. This was our first time getting together with the Yen family in over 13 years. They came to California in the spring of 1996 and stayed at our house for several days. That was so much fun that they decided to come back in August.

But some things aren't meant to be: the Yens canceled that trip after Sing-Long found a job and haven't visited since. As you could imagine, our families were thrilled to touch base again. JJ's kids have all grown up: Gary is now pursuing his J.D. at the University of Pennsylvania while Greg and Michelle are undergraduates at Rutgers.

Gary was busy with law school, but the others were home. The Yens treated us to a hot pot dinner, during which we had lots of catching up to do. Greg later invited me to play Contra: Shattered Soldier on the PlayStation 2 with him. It was both fun and challenging at the same time. The rest of the evening was uneventful as we were all tired.

Day 6

JJ gave us a ride to the nearest NJ Transit station, from which we took the bus to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and then the subway to the Grand Central Terminal. I had no idea the Grand Central Terminal was so large. It was like a city in itself.

Our first stop in New York City was the Columbia University campus. This was another school I had applied for, although we didn't spend more than 15 minutes here as the weather was even colder than in Chicago. All of us started getting hungry and went to a restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown for lunch. The servings were large and delicious, especially the fried fish.

Up next was the World Trade Center site. It's hard to believe over eight years have passed since the 9/11 attacks. The skyline just doesn't seem complete without the Twin Towers. Our next point of interest was the nearby New York University as Dad wanted to see what it looked like.

We then took the subway to Times Square. The plaza was bustling with activity and full of confetti from New Year's Eve. I had hoped to come here for the ball drop - which would have been quite an experience - but the prospect of standing on a crowded street for hours changed my mind. It would also have made bathroom trips a nightmare - not my idea of a good time.

The beautiful Central Park awaited us after dinner. I'd have loved to stay longer if the crime rate wasn't so high. The holiday lights at the Time Warner Center then beckoned us in. I enjoyed visiting Whole Foods Market and Borders despite the high prices. The three of us made a brief stop for pictures at Wall Street before heading back to the Grand Central Terminal.

Sing-Long picked us up at the NJ Transit station and drove us to JJ's friend Joe's house. It turned out Joe was having a big party that Sing-Long didn't want us to miss out on. The karaoke made for a lively atmosphere. I was a little bored as there was nobody else my age, but Joe was kind enough to let me browse the web on his laptop. The other adults enjoyed the party so much that we didn't leave until 11 p.m.

It was nice to be back at JJ's house after a busy day. Greg had left for a nine-day road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains with his girlfriend Glorian, leaving only Michelle and her parents at home. Because I didn't get to say goodbye to him in person, I guess a Facebook post will have to do.

Day 7

The main stop of the day was Cornell University in Ithaca. The route took us past Rutgers, but we skipped it due to the freezing temperatures. I spotted a cute roadside restaurant that turned out to be the perfect place for lunch. Everything we ordered was delicious!

The three of us arrived in Ithaca after a five-hour drive. Aside from a trip to the supermarket for dinner, the evening was uneventful as we were all exhausted.

Day 8

The weather wasn't too cold despite the snow outside. Luck was on our side again: my family met a professor at Cornell who gave us all the information we needed. The afternoon ended with a visit to the Department of Astronomy - where Carl Sagan worked until his death. I've always been one of his fans, and considering that I'll never get to meet him, this was the least I could do. On the whole, Cornell was my favorite school.

The plan was to head back to Morganville after lunch. However, my father extended our stay in Ithaca by a day after another professor said he could meet with us. Dad had hoped to go to Syracuse in the meantime but later changed his mind after the weather turned bad. The evening was much like the previous one: all we did was buy food at the supermarket.

Day 9

The appointment with Prof. Lewis went extremely well. I truly appreciate him taking the time to meet with us during the holidays. Our last stop in Ithaca was the Sagan Planet Walk - which consists of 10 monuments representing the Solar System. They were a nice touch, although we only went to the first four as it had gotten unbearably cold.

Philadelphia awaited us in the afternoon. The reason for coming to the City of Brotherly Love was to see the University of Pennsylvania. Gary is studying here to become a lawyer (an honest one, he says) and was more than happy to show us around. I could tell UPenn was a prestigious school. After the tour, we thanked Gary for his time and took him to dinner at a restaurant of his choice before dropping him off at his apartment.

I was getting ready for bed when I realized I had lost one of my mittens. Chances are it's somewhere in Philadelphia. Shit happens. It really does.

Day 10

JJ recommended Monmouth Battlefield State Park after we asked him about hiking spots. The trails were nice, but the scenery wasn't that impressive. On the other hand, Dad found an abandoned baseball in good condition near a frozen pond. He says it compensates for the mitten I lost the day before.

The next stop was Princeton University as my father wanted to see what it looked like too. This was followed by a hike along the partially frozen Delaware River. The place was beautiful, but we eventually had to turn back after reaching a fallen tree that blocked the path.

The plan was to go to a nearby beach that we heard had a great view of the Atlantic Ocean. Just then, our GPS gave us wrong directions and sent us on a wild goose chase for about 30 minutes. Seeing that we were getting nowhere, my parents gave up and went back to JJ's place. Don't you love technology sometimes?

The Yens invited us to an Asian buffet restaurant for dinner. Though I loved the food, this was a bittersweet moment as we soon had to part ways. Michelle actually needed to go back to Rutgers to prepare for a job fair. I hugged her goodbye before we returned to JJ's house for the night.

Mom noticed several hundred dollars in cash were missing as we were packing up. I'm guessing some random New Yorker must have took them. Fuck those bastards. >:(

Day 11

We thanked JJ and Sing-Long for their hospitality and said our farewells before heading back to the airport. On the way through Staten Island, my family stopped at a restaurant called Jimmy Max for lunch. The atmosphere was nice, although the tight schedule made it hard to enjoy the meal.

The good news is that we were able to board our flight on time despite the heavy traffic. The plane landed in San Francisco five hours later. Karen picked us up and gave us a ride home, during which we treated her to dinner for her troubles.

Conclusions

The purpose of traveling to Chicago and the Atlantic Northeast was to get a closer look at several universities to which I've applied. Cornell was my favorite, although I loved UPenn and Northwestern as well. Here's to hoping I get accepted into at least one of them!

Spanning 11 days, this was one of our longest trips ever. Of note is that never stayed at a hotel except when we visited Ithaca. The generosity of our friends and family saved us a lot in accommodation costs. Though the cold weather limited our outdoor time, that generally wasn't an issue.

The highlight of the trip was watching people ice fish on Lake Monona. The party at Da-Wei's house was also awesome; there are few things better than celebrating the New Year with relatives. It was also nice to get together with the Yen family again after over 13 years. But perhaps the most important thing is that I have a better understanding of the schools I've applied to.

Speaking of which, I ought to be studying as the winter quarter at St. Mary's College of California is starting in a few days. In the meantime, you can see the pictures from the trip here.

Update: The pictures are up.

Currently listening to: "Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley

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