Friday, February 29, 2008

Living in USA - Part 7

Then came summer, a time where most Americans, except graduate students probably, would be enjoying themselves, get their free sun tan whether by being at beaches or just by lying around in front of their houses or in the field somewhere.

Schools would be closed for three long months. Parents would be near crazy just thinking how to fill up their children’s free time. Summer camps were a few options parents had to make sure children used their free time wisely, but they could be very expensive.

As for us Muslim parents, the Athens Islamic Centre organized classes for children. In their free times, Syazwan and Syafiq were always playing outside, coming up only to quench their thirst. Swimming pools were crowded with people trying their best to keep cool.

Students, the undergraduates mostly, came to school in their skimpiest of outfits. It was in summer too that I was first introduced to biopsy duties. Surgical specimens from the university veterinary clinics and other clinics from all over US were processed, stained and read by graduate students together with the pathologists.

Reading and interpreting biopsy slides was a real challenge to me. There were too many skin conditions and tumours in dogs and other animals that I had never heard of before. My previous veterinary studies in Malaysia did not put very much emphasis on small animals and tumours.

Like always, pathologists working with me were always great helps. Whenever I was in trouble interpreting a lesion, they would always say, “Come on Azahar, don’t be discouraged. You’re still new in this. We’ve been doing this work for more than twenty years”.

It was true. They were really experts in the field. By looking at the breed and the age of dogs and the site of the tumour, through experience, they almost could tell what kind of tumour it was most likely be. More importantly, they were willing to share their expertise with graduate students like me. I thought I had learned a lot about animal neoplasms from them. Dr Latimer was one such an expert. The latest news I heard was that he had moved to Texas A&M University.

The children were nagging us for a summer vacation. Florida was always on our mind as the next holiday destination. Travel guides, discount vouchers, and a detailed map of hotels and places of interests were in our hands long before summer. All these were obtained by just a phone call to the American Automobile Association (AAA). I was a member of this association as soon as I got myself the car.

So one fine day, on the 20th of August 1995, driving a brand new white 1995 Ford Taurus, we once again left Athens for a city called Kissimmee, in the heart of Florida’s tourism area. Being fully prepared, we drove the eight-hour distance calmly, knowing that I had memorized the route and had our accommodation reserved.

The highway was full of cars but the drive was smooth and relaxing. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at one rest area. We reached Kissimmee at around 5.00 pm and went straight to the Econolodge hotel. The hotel was cheap, only US$27 per night. To our delight, there was a North Indian Restaurant (Muslim) at the hotel. The owner, believe it or not, knew Malaysia and our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman!

Sadly he did not know that Tunku was no more with us. Wasting no time, we ordered two ‘nasi beriyani’ for dinner. It was delicious and worth all the money that we paid for it. After dinner, we discussed the places that we were going to visit. As there were too many good places and our budget was limited, we all agreed to visit five main attractions of the city; Disney World - Magic Kingdom and Disney-MGM studios, Epcot centre, Universal Studios, and Sea World.

We bought two adult and three children 4-day value passes for admittance to the Magic Kingdom, Disney-MGM studio, and Epcot centre. These passes, together with tickets for the Universal studios and the Sea World totalled a whopping US$800!

The next morning, everybody woke up early. The children were all too excited about visiting the places that they lost interest in breakfast. An interesting thing about cooking our own food in a hotel room was that we had to be smart in bluffing the smoke detector. We had to cover the smoke detector with a plastic bag whenever we were cooking!

After a simple but delicious breakfast of Malaysian style tuna sandwiches, we left the hotel for our first destination, the Magic Kingdom, one of the many Disney Worlds’ attractions. We arrived at the main gate just a few minutes before it was opened.

After paying for the car park, we had to find a parking space and get into lines and waited for a special wagon train that would take us to the monorail station that would finally take us to the Magic Kingdom. There was a big crowd at the Magic Kingdom. It was just like a big city with people walking merrily, hands in hand along the streets. You could hear all kind of languages being spoken.

The children insisted on getting onto one of the horse carriages. We hopped onto one and everybody just loved the ride. The two Morgan horses brought us right into the centre of Magic Kingdom.

In the distance we could see the famous Cinderella’s castle. There were too many things to see and do at Magic Kingdom. A whole day was probably not enough time to cover everything. Besides going into the various shows such as the Snow White and the seven Dwarves, Cinderella’s Castle, It is a small world, Tomorrow’s land, Fantasy land, and the Lion King, the children and my wife were also busy running here and there, going after famous Disney characters looking for their autographs and for photography sessions with them. They were characters like Genie from the Aladdin series, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, Captain Hook, Goo Baloo, the Queen of Hearts, Gideon, and Sheriff.

The Parade was really something to watch. All the characters of Disney, in eye-catching colourful costumes passed through the main streets of Magic Kingdom amidst the loud music of the marching bands. Syazwan was on my back trying to catch a glimpse of the passing parade while Syafiq and Diyana were craning their heads through the crowd to catch sight of their favourite characters.

Towards the end of our visit to the Magic Kingdom, there was a heavy downpour complete with thunderstorm and lightning. People, including us, as if impervious to water, walked leisurely through the rain.

Soaking wet, we did not bother looking for cover; instead, we went on along the streets looking for souvenirs. While waiting for lemonades, we ran across a family from Malaysia. He was a Datuk businessman holidaying with his family in Florida. It was a small world after all. They were from Kuala Lumpur on a business cum holiday. At around seven, we left Magic Kingdom for the hotel. We slept early that night.

Epcot Centre was our second day’s destination. From far the huge golf-ball-like building attracted us. In the building, we travelled through time, to the various stages of development in human communication. It was an interesting, well designed, and above all, an informative journey.

The show that made all of us screaming in fear was Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Inside the theatre, we had to put on some special 3-D spectacles. The three dimension effects made us felt like being really tiny. The dog’s sneezing caused our faces to be covered by tiny droplets of its saliva - how disgusting!

The sound made by thousands of rats running towards us was so real that everybody lifted their feet off the floor. Suddenly a very large python surprised us all as it came very close to our faces, with its long sharp fangs ready to bite. This made Syazwan screamed and ran onto my lap.

For me, I liked the Energy show. There, we were brought along the energy pathway, right into the ages when dinosaurs ruled the earth. The dinosaurs were so real. For fear of getting soaked for the second day, we deliberately missed full size replicas of China’s attraction and other representative countries and left Epcot Centre early.

On the third day we visited the Disney-MGM studios. The Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground was a real treat for the children. There, everything was built in gigantic size. There were giant rotten doughnuts, burgers, old photographic films, ants, and many more objects, just like we saw in the film.

Syafiq and Syazwan were chasing each other through the tall grasses and over burgers and rotten doughnuts. At the Indiana Jones stunt show, with our own eyes, we saw how the great movie was made.

The scenes of burning planes, spears coming out of the ground as our hero was walking through the ground, a giant cannon ball rolling menacingly close to the hero, and the professionally choreographed fist fights between the villain and Indiana Jones all made us rooted to our seats. That day the children learned a lot about the art of filmmaking. Like in the Magic Kingdom, here too the children were rushing here and there to get autographs and pictures together with characters like Mickey Mouse, Aladdin, and the beautiful Princess Jasmine.

Of all the places visited so far, I thought the Universal studio was the favourite among us, especially the children. The studio was just like a big US city, with streets, buildings and all. We just had to amble along the streets and chose what we liked to see.

Diyana caught sight of the ghostbusters’ car. She ran towards it and asked me to have her picture taken as she leaned against the car. First we stopped at the Alfred Hitchcock’s theatre. There were collections of old films produced by him. The replay of a classic murder scene in a shower, as seen in the film Psycho played by Tony Perkins, was so realistic that made many in the audience covered their eyes in terror.

Leaving Hitchcock, we joined in the long queue of people waiting to come face to face with King Kong, the movie epic so loved by many. Actually, we were all play-acting as if we were being rescued from a city devastated by a giant gorilla by the name of King Kong!

In the so-called evacuation process, we had to get to the cable car station where we would be carried away to safety. On the way, we had to pass through old buildings with walls and pillars full of graffiti, just like a really rundown city somewhere in US. Reaching the station, some authority called all of us to be calm and get onto any of the cable cars fast for King Kong was not far behind, running amuck destroying everything in its path!

The cable car brought us right through what remained of the city. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there it was, King Kong, in front of us in rage. There were fires everywhere. Then King Kong came towards us and we all could see the raging red eyes, the long razor-sharp fangs, and the huge muscular arms extending towards us as if trying to rip us apart. However, the cable car was racing away at a fast speed getting away from King Kong. We were saved at last from the marauding beast! King Kong was so realistically designed that no wonder in film it looked so lifelike. The children were so very excited after the great thriller.

After the success evacuation, we all went straight to another action filled scenes, the earthquake! We got ourselves onto a train. As we were travelling, there was an announcement over the radio saying that an earthquake had been detected. We were told to hold on tight to the train.

Then everything went haywire. The bridge was collapsing, a petroleum tanker bursting into flames, and gallons of water gushing out towards us. Everybody was screaming his / her head out!

Within just a few minutes, everything that had fallen apart by the mighty force of the earthquake, came back, all nice and normal as if nothing had happened. That was what movie magic was after all. The set must have taken the ideas and efforts of many brilliant engineers and designers working together, to produce what we had just witnessed, felt and experienced a moment ago.

From the natural disaster area, we went straight to a quiet fishing village. It was supposed to be quiet, but of course at the moment, it was thronged with people, all trying to feel the attack of Jaws. The line was terribly long, winding all the way in a maze-like fashion. It was amazing to see that the people were so patient waiting their turn. No body even tried to jump the queue even though many were grumbling about the heat.

I was scared that the heat might affect my children. After about nearly two hours, we reached the boats. Everybody jumped into a fishing boat, ready for action. As the boat was making its way towards an open sea, our eyes were alert for surprises. Then, out of the water apt a giant great white shark with its mouth wide open leapt at us as if trying to swallow the whole boat.

The boat sped away. One of the shark hunters at the back of the boat started firing away at the shark. He missed. The shark came back towards us. Its dorsal fin was clearly visible at the surface of the water. Syafiq and Syazwan were debating whether the shark was real or not. Confusing them further, I told them that it was real.

We rushed back into the harbour to get help. On the way we saw another boat in ruin, burning, and almost being sunken. Perhaps it had been the victim of the same shark. We reached the harbour safe and sound but our hearts were still pounding vigorously. We had a photography session by the sides of a huge ‘shark’ caught by the fisherman.

The three suspense episodes made us all very hungry and thirsty. As luck was with us, there was a Chinese restaurant not far away from the harbour. From the menu, we chose something close to our appetite, seafood fried noodles and seafood fried rice. Both the fried noodles and fried rice were really good and ample. We had to box it just to prevent the good food going to waste and for our second meal later.

By the way, in US it is customary for restaurant-goers to box in whatever food they could not finish. I think this practice should be encouraged in Malaysia as I personally think that we waste too much of our good food, especially during buffet lunches and dinners.

The heavy lunch and the heat of the afternoon made me sleepy and tired. The children, on the other hand, were pushing us towards a pavilion not far from the restaurant. It was the ride of Back to the Future series!

As usual, after a long line, we were escorted into a futuristic space vehicle. We were told of the safety procedures before the take off. Our mission was to go after an escaped criminal. When everything was ready, off we went speeding at the speed of light. On the way, we came so very close to knocking many things but the great pilot was successful in bringing us safe and sound to our destination. The thrill of flying at such a great speed made Syazwan begging us to go back for more. I just had to say no to his incessant pleas. We still had too many interesting places to visit.

Quite fed up with all the excitement, I decided that it was time for a more relaxing theme. We chose Barney and friends. At the theatre, we all met Barney, Baby Bob, B.J. and his many friends. Barney was actually a television character well loved by most young kids in US. “I love you. You love me. We’re all family, with a great big hug and kiss from me to you. Won’t you say you love me too....” there went that famous rhyme sung by Barney and his friends.

We tried to have pictures taken with Barney, but the crowd was too big for us. Instead, the children got Barney’s signature for their collection.

On our way back, we stopped at the Ghostbusters theatre. It was here that we found out that it was wrong to judge a book by its cover. As we made our way into the theatre, we saw nothing in it that we first thought worth waiting. As we were about to make our exit, there was this eerie sound coming out of the theatre.

There and then we changed our mind and decided to wait for our turn to enter the theatre. The show was both frightening and entertaining. The ghostly figures were so real that on a couple of times, Syazwan screamed in fear.

At Nickelodeon studios we saw how children’s game shows, such as Galah Galah Island, were made. We were brought on a tour of the whole studio. The children loved it. We left Universal studios fully satisfied with all we had seen and experienced.

On the last day of our holidays, every one of us woke up late. The previous three days of continuous walking and waiting had taken its toll on our bodies. I felt that I really needed a good traditional massage to sooth all the pains, especially in my legs.

We arrived at the Sea World quite early. The sky was dark and soon it began to rain. We stopped at a souvenir stall and bought us five raincoats expecting that we had to walk in the rain. First we went and saw the beautiful flamingoes and the ever-playful dolphins. We met a family from Malaysia while we were at the flamingo pond.

Then there was this aquarium and the ray pond. At the ray pond, we saw hundreds of rays swimming so gently in the shallow manmade pond. An interesting experience for all of us was to touch and feed the slimy creatures. Syafiq and Syazwan, though hesitant at first, soon began stroking the fish that they used to have for dinner back home!

It was still raining nonstop. Trying to escape from the wetness, we joined in the crowd towards the White Thunder, a helicopter ride to the North Pole. The ride was full of adventures. We had to pass through many difficult times. The snowstorms, the avalanche, and the near crash added the excitement of the helicopter ride. Reaching the North Pole, we went straight into the research station and were met by friendly polar bears and walruses.

After the White Thunder ride, we approached the must-see show, the killer whale stadium, where Shamu the killer whale would be performing alongside many other whales and their human trainers. While waiting for the show to start, we were entertained with video shows pertaining to killer whales. Through the question and answer session, we knew more information about killer whales. We then knew that a group of killer whales was called a pod, not a school or a herd!

The whale show was mesmerizing. Shamu and friends performed brilliantly, jumping, swimming, and splashing. Once in a while they, following orders from their trainers, started splashing water towards the audience. Everybody sitting in the front rows was sure to be wet, really wet.

Besides the killer whale show, the sea lion comedy show was in a class of its own too. The children were laughing their hearts out in seeing the antics of these friendly creatures and their funny trainers!

Besides being a great tourist attraction, Sea World was also playing its role in the conservation of aquatic wild life. From the huge tanks, we saw for our first time, manatees, the creatures that once used to be abundant in Florida and were believed to be the origin of the Mermaid myth. How I wished, people should be more conscious of their responsibilities in keeping the nature’s equilibrium. It was almost eight when we began leaving Sea World for our last night in Kissimmee.

As we still had a day’s entrance to the Magic Kingdom on our value passes, we returned to the place just to get pictures of places that we missed during our first visit. Syazwan was successful in getting a replacement of his misplaced Mickey Mouse hat. At about 10.00 in the morning, we left Kissimmee for Athens. We reached Athens at around eight at night.

To be continued

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