Atlanta Stories 2

One morning, we woke up to loud knocking. The knocking was consistent and loud, the type that means all business. Since apartment walls are usually drywall and have no sound-proofing, I thought someone was knocking at our door. I got out of bed quickly and looked through the key hole and saw the police waiting outside. But they were facing our neighbour’s door and continued knocking.

Now that was interesting! There were 4 policemen outside. What was our neighbour up to? We had seen this neighbour before. She seemed like a polite woman and always smiled when we met her on the stairs. She had a kid and we had met some of the other people who lived with her.

I had to leave for work so I had to stop spying and get ready. It took me a few minutes to get ready and when I stepped out, our neighbor was sitting by the staircase. I tried to act cool and make my way down the stairs without inconveniencing them but the flurry of activities made it awkward. I found my way down the stairs somehow and didn’t look back.

A few men had been arrested. We inferred later that they were involved in gangs and drug deals. I don’t think they stayed there every night but would stop by sometimes.

When I came back from work, the action scene had concluded. Our neighbour had been evicted and the apartment was being cleaned out.

The apartment complex we lived in was a gated community but the gate was almost always broken. The apartment administration would fix it sometimes and add more security options but it would be get broken again.

The smells of Atlanta

Did you know that marijuana smells sweetish and unpleasant? We had a few neighbours who smoked it all the time and we could smell it all the way up to our apartment. I wonder if it’s possible to get high through passive smoking. I didn’t feel any different.

The part of Atlanta that we lived in had several stinky streets with problems of open defecation. Homelessness exists in the US and you can find people living on the streets in warmer cities like Atlanta. The homeless would often beg for money and make temporary shelters under flyovers and street corners. I don’t think I ever saw children who were homeless.

Walking downtown was always fun. The stadium was right there. The streets were busy with tourists, soccer fans and people wearing costumes.

Roadtrips

Road trips are a popular way for intercity travel in the US. The first road trip we took was from Atlanta to Nashville. It was less than four hours away but I was so restless throughout the trip. Now I don’t mind road trips as much and sometimes road trips are a much better option than being in tiny planes getting tossed in the wind.

Advertisements

Atlanta Stories

Atlanta is a vibrant city, full of life, very diverse and  and we lived there nearly four years. We recently moved and I wanted to record a few of our unique Atlanta experiences before we forget all about them 🙂

Atlanta summers can get as high as 38 degree Celsius with humidity. That heat is familiar since I am from Kolkata. What’s different is that some of our neighbors just sit in their cars during hot summer afternoons even though all apartments have air conditioning. Sometimes they turn music on but sometimes, they just sit in the parking lot for hours, doing nothing else.

For a few months last year, someone would play loud music around 3 AM every night while sitting in his car. The music would often wake us up and it turned into quite a tradition. In fact, a few days after the music stopped waking us up, we wondered if the neighbor had left. Around the same time, we had a neighbor who would practice his drum lessons late at night. Since everything else is “hear a pin drop” quiet, those drums were loud.

Our apartment was right next to railway tracks for cargo trains. These trains run through the day and night and their weight would make our furniture rattle.  I don’t think we will miss that part about living there.

For a few nights I stayed by myself while my husband worked night shifts. One night while trying to sleep and trying to ignore those creaks and sounds that are creepier and louder at night, I heard a loud scream, ‘they’re gonna kill me!”

At first I was frozen to the bed in fear, unable to move. When the shouting was accompanied by more commotion, I realized that the noise was coming from right below our apartment. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window.

There were police cars everywhere. The railway tracks were lit up and people’s porch lights were on which made the night look brighter than it was. A man was struggling to escape the clutches of two policemen.  He had managed to make it halfway over the fence.

The fences are almost 6 feet high and he was trying very hard to slide across to the other side. The police seemed to have caught him just as he was about to reach the top. So when I looked out of the window, I saw the man almost on the tips of the fence with two policemen trying to prevent him from making it to the other side. My heart was still racing as the man continued screaming, “they’re gonna kill me. Help! Help me, momma! Momma!”

It was during the same year when the media and public were misrepresenting police actions and making police appear to be villains all over the US. You might have read some of the bad publicity city police offices were getting and most of the stories were falsified. That night I prayed that the officers would do the right thing because clearly the man was trying everything he could to get injured in order to escape arrest.

Soon an elderly lady ran out of one of the apartments on the ground floor. I was shocked to realize that the man was in fact calling out to his mother. She lived right there, in our apartment complex and perhaps so did he! There was a crime suspect living so close to our apartment!

The elderly lady ran out shouting words of comfort to her son and abuses at the officers. In that moment, the man managed to break free from the police and ran towards our building. More police cars had arrived by then. It was like a scene from the movies. Sirens blaring, officers hurried out of their cars chasing him on foot. He was surrounded in seconds. They were now on the other side of the building and I couldn’t follow the rest of the action. The commotion continued till the man was finally arrested and the mother calmed down.

Over the next few minutes the police cars departed, apartment porch lights went out and the outside was dark again. I was too excited to sleep. I had just witnessed something exciting – a crime bust right below our apartment!

When my husband returned home from work later that night, I learned that the man had been involved in regular theft from the cargo trains that parked on the tracks at night. The police had finally caught on to his tricks and had arrested him.

Atlanta’s MARTA trains

For the past nine months I worked at a company that was around 17 miles (27kms) from where we live in Atlanta. Given my fear of driving on Atlanta highways and the desire to escape Atlanta rush hour traffic snarls, I used the MARTA trains to travel to and from work.

Read related: Driving basics: India and the US

MARTA stands for Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and is the main form of public transportation in Atlanta. MARTA trains and bus routes in Atlanta are a convenient way to get around the city if you don’t mind walking to and from the stops.

Every user needs a breeze card to use the MARTA service. These cards can be purchased very easily at the pay machines outside MARTA train stations. If you need to use the bus, you will need to buy your card at one of the main bus stations or any train station. Breeze cards can be topped up with cash value for rides either online or at any station. Rides are most economical if you can buy “rides” instead of selecting the “add cash” option. Some pay machines don’t offer the option to buy rides, so check online if you’re planning to use the card regularly.

Inside the station or at the bus stop, you will find the routes and ride options displayed. If you’re unsure, just ask the driver or MARTA staff or another passenger. The first time I used the MARTA, I met a kind elderly gentleman who gave me directions and it was really easy.

I learnt a few lessons about the trains and ways to make the most of my one hour rides every day.

Most trains have a recorded announcement which you can listen to to track your stop but sometimes there aren’t any announcements and you need to pay attention to the station chart or the station signs. Of course there are some drivers who like to make the announcement themselves and that’s usually interesting. Some make it fun and some talk loud and non-stop.

The most crowded train compartments are usually the ones closest to the entrance stairs since a lot of people make it just in time and rush in to the closest open train door.

The seats closest to the train doors are usually reserved for senior citizens, pregnant women and people with special needs. Check your seat before you sit down because some of them have food and drink spills or other stains.

In the mornings, you can find a few homeless people sleeping soundly on their seats. And sometimes there are people who are loud and clearly high on substances. All of them contribute to interesting train rides.

One morning, a gentleman sang loudly and out of tune for a while. We all noticed him – dressed for work and seemed all right. The compartment was crowded and his singing was not entertaining after a while. We heard someone say something to him and I didn’t hear what it was but I heard his loud reply. He laughed and said that he couldn’t stop singing because he had been homeless and hopeless for so long and he had finally found a job. He knew God was turning his life around. He had so much joy that people started cheering him on as he sang and shared his story. It was a pretty neat ride after that!

Even the most crowded trains offer plenty of standing space. Since the train stops at every station, people board and get off frequently and it’s usually easy to find an empty seat. Trains are air conditioned and usually colder than I prefer but wearing a light sweater helps.

My favorite part about the daily one hour ride was to find a comfortable seat with some uninterrupted reading time.  I’ve always enjoyed reading but in the last few months, I read more books, magazines and comics than I had in all of 2016!

MARTA rides are also great opportunities to catch up on planning and life reflections. You can see people staring out of the windows even inside tunnels. Some listen to music or watch videos offline. Quite naturally, phone and internet services don’t work inside tunnels.

Check the timings and routes on the MARTA website and try it the next time you’re in Atlanta!


The featured image was TOM’s Facebook cover photo for a while and features the MARTA overhead tracks at the West End station.

Flying to the US? Learn more about the latest electronics ban

Flying to the US with electronics just became a lot more inconvenient. Major airlines flying via countries in the Middle East and Africa will no longer allow electronics larger than a cellphone in a handbag. Passengers will be required to pack them with their checked luggage.

This step was taken by the US to avoid the risk of passenger planes being targeted by terrorist groups who might smuggle explosives in electronic devices.

Medical devices might be allowed on the plane after thorough screening.

Airlines impacted:

Egyptair, Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, Kuwait Airways, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Turkish Airlines.

Preparing for flights to the US:

  1. Check with your airline to determine how the electronics ban will effect you and pack accordingly.
  2. If you have medical devices, let your airline know in advance so that they can be prepared to screen them and allow them on the plane with you.
  3. Estimate longer layovers because of additional screenings. Pack some dry and permissible snacks and perhaps some reading material to make long layovers less painful.
  4. Prepare to be searched thoroughly, exercise patience and cooperate with officials.
  5. If you absolutely must carry electronics in your handbag, book tickets with airline who are currently unaffected by the ban.

 

Did the ban effect you? Write to us: editor@theoverseasmagazine.com

Read more about the ban here.


 

Reentering the US under Trump Administration

My husband and I had planned a trip to India for February 2017. We had booked tickets before all of Trump’s immigration and travel ban revisions were announced. Being a green card holder, the doubts in my mind were pretty strong – would I be allowed to enter? Would I have to endure a painfully long screening process? How would I stay patient through it all? We were skeptical about the timing of the trip but since we had non-refundable tickets, we decided to go ahead and risk it. 

This is how things turned out.

Our flight from Kolkata to Atlanta had a brief layover in Doha. We booked this flight because of it’s the shortest travel route at a rate that’s affordable.

We made it to Doha smoothly and went through security check as we got off the plane. It was a standard check – remove shoes and laptop and walk through the metal detector. Since all passengers needed to go through the check, it took a while to get through it. But we made it through the checks and walked to our gate.

At the gate, there was a queue for additional security checks meeting US standards. My husband and I were selected for a random secondary check while we waited in line. Like most people, I was not excited about the check since it meant that we would have to unpack everything and get treated like villains.

When it was our turn, we first went through the usual remove-shoes-laptop-metal detector check. We were then asked to wait for a secondary screening.

At the secondary screening, a no-nonsense officer checked all the contents of my bags. I was asked to turn my laptop on and she brushed it with a detector. She inquired about other electronics that I had. She then proceeded to use the detector to brush my palms, folds of clothing and shoes. In the busyness of the moment, she misplaced my boarding pass. In fact, she even forgot that she had not returned it to me and asked me for it. I thought to myself, this is it – trouble begins. Thankfully she decided to look for it among her things and found it after a brief search. I was relieved to finally have it back.

My husband who is an US citizen had to go through the same checks.

We were found ‘clear’ and proceeded to board when another employee discovered that my husband’s boarding pass was not marked as ‘clear’. The agent who had conducted his secondary check escorted him for a third search of similar intensity and finally cleared us both for boarding.

On arriving in the US, the rest of the immigration process was similar to ones in the past – no additional hassles for citizens and green card holders. We submitted my immigration form and were asked to declare that we were not carrying any restricted items into the US.

In a way, the checks seemed to go smoother than ever. Perhaps it was because we were almost expecting to be subjected to lengthier processes and interviews. We proceeded to baggage claim to collect our luggage and walked out of the airport.

We are still monitoring news related to immigration and hope that the right decisions are made by the governing powers of USA.


Meals every Indian should try in the US

When you visit the US, you have to try these!

Barbecued meat! Whether you prefer chicken or pork, find a restaurant that serves barbecue platters. The mildly sweet and smoky melt-in-your-mouth options are a must have when you’re in the US!

barbecue-820010_1920
Mouthwatering barbecued meat. Give us a side of naan and we are set!

Burgers and hotdogs come in all sizes and varieties. The type of burgers and hotdogs you find in India don’t quite compare to the ones available in the US. Opt for beef if you eat beef or try the cheese burger. Amazingness! Hotdogs can vary in quality so maybe try just one.

burger-851847_1920
We need bigger mouths for that burger!

Soups and stews are both comfort food and an entire hot meal in a bowl. Try the  Brunswick stew, with it’s rich taste of tomatoes and meat, or try gumbo! Find out what the traditional soup is and enjoy it with a side of bread sticks or rice.

soup-1581504_1280
Doesn’t that look wholesome? Yummy soup!

Although India offers a variety of bread options, when Indians hear bread, we usually think of the common sliced white bread but if you enjoy bread, you will love meals in the US! Bagels, buns, dinner rolls, biscuits, corn bread, baguette are a few among many other varieties. They all differ in texture and taste and if you can’t differentiate, it’s alright. It’s probably the same reason why Americans identify the variety of Indian flatbread as naan 🙂

garlic-bread-661578_1920
We love garlic bread!

Mexican food is extremely popular so enjoy the delicious tacos and burritos. In addition to that, you can find fusion food everywhere. Korean, Thai, Japanese – all offer fusion options and Indian taste buds will love them. American Chinese food is not as spicy as Indian Chinese food and Indian food is mostly limited to North Indian food options.

taco-1018962_1920
Tacos are perfect for any meal.

If you want to try fast food, try Chick-fil-A! The fried chicken burgers will win over your heart and stomach instantly.

Spicy deluxe sandwich.jpg
Spicy Deluxe Sandwich offers the perfect amount of spice and flavors.

Finally to satisfy your sweet tooth, try the cheesecakes, donuts, pies, a wide range or cookies and muffins. There are tons of other options obviously but you can’t visit the US and not try these!

donut-1761520_1920
Give them all to us!!! Donuts for days!

Have a great trip and enjoy your meals!


 

 

Green card process through fiancé (k1) visa

Once upon a time my husband and I were engaged :). Some of you know that I am an Indian and my husband is an American so after we got engaged and decided to live in the US, my green card process towered over us. We spoke to some friends who had gone through this process before and realized that it would be easier for us to get married in the US. It would be simpler to get our marriage recognized, which, in turn would expedite my green card process.

I bookmarked this page on my computer: uscis.gov/green-card/green-card-through-family and followed all the steps listed.

Other sites that were helpful:

The information on those links might seem like a whole lot but read on and you will see that it’s not that difficult to get through the process as long as you are paying attention.

March 2014:

My fiancé had returned to the US after our engagement and that served to our advantage because he was able to submit the initial intent of marriage and other supporting documents to the US immigration services in the US. You can find the list of documents on the USCIS webpage but two things seemed important:

  1. Proof of income/employment in the US – This included salary details and a letter from the employer. Therefore, proof that I wouldn’t waltz into the US and ask the government to support us.
  2. Proof of our relationship – This included some letters and photographs – thankfully we had plenty of both which were appropriate for sharing. We submitted photographs of just the two of us and a few we had clicked with friends.

August 2014:

There was just silence till August 2014. We had received an acknowledgement after sending the initial documents and I had a tracking number assigned to me.

In August, I received an email that that the initial plea was approved and I needed to submit additional documents supporting my intent to marry my fiancé and other documents that would establish me as someone credible. I spent the next several days filling out forms and gathering documents.

One of the documents required was a proof of no criminal history. The easiest way to do this was to ask the passport office in Kolkata to release my criminal history since they maintain that information for issued passports. This step required an appointment set up at the passport office, which wasn’t hard to do. You can check your passport office’s website about how to go about this.

After mailing those documents, we waited to hear from USCIS again.

September 2014:

We heard back around mid-September! I was directed to the final step of the process, which involved a health screening and in-person interview. Inconveniently for me, neither of these processes were done in Kolkata. I called USCIS and requested an appointment in Mumbai.

According to the USCIS representative I spoke to, who are all really polite and patient, by the way, if I had a clear health record – meaning if I wasn’t the carrier of any deadly diseases that would be a threat to the US, I would have the in-person interview within the week! Since I was able to stay with relatives there, I decided to spend a week during the first week of October in Mumbai, hoping to get everything done and return to Kolkata with my visa approval.

For the interview in Mumbai, I needed some originals from my fiancé which he had to mail through FedEx to make sure they made it on time. So I opted for the second week of October for the visa interview just to give us enough time to get all the documents perfect the first time. Our goal was to go through the process without having to repeat any steps.

October 2014:

Health checks take a few hours to finish and you will receive an email with instructions about those. Save that email because the health center in Mumbai asked me to forward the email to them before they could schedule the test.

I went for my health test alone and wished I had company because the waiting between different steps were boring. I was asked to return another day to collect all the test results and was warned not to open or tamper with the envelop in any way. I would have to carry it with me to the US and present the sealed envelope to the Immigration officer at the airport. (Side note: I did not have to submit anything at the US airport. The fiancé/k1 visa on my passport was all that was needed).

Before the health test, I was advised to get visa photos done before going to the in-person interview. There were several stores that offered visa photo service near the health test location. Visa photos have some strict specifications. You could also get photos clicked and printed at the consulate but the prices and hassle would be outrageous. So get the right photos done even before the health test so that you can submit the same one during the health test.

I was excited to have cleared the health test, even though I wasn’t really expecting anything different. We had made it this far! I felt ready for the consulate interview. Consulates always have rules about restricted and permitted items and it important you comply if you want to get inside otherwise you might have to reschedule your appointment.

The in-person interview at the consulate was painless. Someone at the first counter checked my paperwork and I was directed to another counter for my interview. I was asked a few details about my fiancé and his family. Basic questions about the number of siblings he has, if I had ever met his family, his date of birth, how we met, if we have a wedding date set, if my family would be able to attend. Then the person asked me for my fiancé’s phone number. I did not have it memorized so I told her that. She smiled and went ahead with the approval. But just so you don’t feel as foolish as I did, learn your partner’s number and address.

I received my fiancée visa approval right away and I was told that my passport bearing the visa would be mailed to the consulate in Kolkata. It was ready for pick up within a week!

December 2014:

We fixed the wedding date and I booked my tickets so that we would be married within 90 days of my arrival in the US!

I arrived in the US a week and a half before the wedding date. I had my visa and the sealed medical documents with me. I went through immigration without being pestered with questions. My fiancé and I picked up our wedding license the day before the wedding and being together really made the long visa process worth it!

When my family arrived in the US closer to the wedding date, they were asked two questions: anyone carrying pickles? haha…and purpose of the visit.

They breezed through the immigration process.

[One advice that I received was to get married in court right after entering the US in case the wedding ceremony and party could not be arranged within the 90 days period. That way we could proceed with the green card process and I would not risk the possibility of getting deported. The wedding party could be planned anytime later. Thankfully, my fiancé and I didn’t need to go through this step and our wedding day was a-m-a-z-i-n-g!]

January 2015:

We received our marriage certificate after about 2 weeks of being married and we were able to send all the documents required for my green card processing!

We applied for two other authorizations at the same time – one was Advance Parole, which allowed me to leave and enter the US while I waited for my green card. USCIS is strict about this and may not allow you to reenter the US without that prior approval. The other authorization was related to employment.

I also applied for my Social Security Card, added my name to our cellphone and utility bills and applied for my local ID. I was issued a temporary ID and applied for my driver’s license.

March 2015:

I received my Advance Parole authorization.

April 2015:

We heard back from USCIS – we were eligible for an interview waiver before my green card was issued. In April, I also traveled back to India to visit family and reentered the US smoothly.

June 2015:

I received my employment approval in June.

August 2015:

I received my temporary green card by mail.

My green card and government IDs have expiration dates and are valid for two years. We will need to apply for renewals in 2017 and I look forward to sharing more about those processes when they are completed.