Sunday, October 17, 2010

Soorti Saturday

A very, very brief trip to Surat on Saturday. Some first impressions - 
Change is a difficult thing to find. 
A unique Surat speciality - ice paan. Which is regular paan filled with crushed ice. Have it on a hot afternoon and your whole head fills with this ice-cold liquid feeling, flavoured icy water trickling down your throat. Brain freeze. Numb gums. Chill tongue. Then as the water melts away, the paan flavor emerges... awesome. 
Sosyo. A slightly spicy-flavored fizzy drink, and the only way you will be able to digest all the food you eat, because Surat, like the rest of Gujrat, is all about
Food. Everywhere. Anywhere. Anytime. All the time. Food stalls, line the streets, fill the malls, tempting treats, eat them all. I can't even begin the describe the sheer variety of Surat-specific snacks. Which also why you will find
Picnic Roads. Roads are meant, in the classic sense, to travel along, usually in a vehicle. In the Indian context, they can be places to set up business, do your business, eat, pray, live. In Surat, they're also picnic spots. Dividers become tables, railings become backrests, the baskets and tiffins are opened, and awash in the illumination of a thousand malls 'n stalls, the Surat citizens have a gala time sitting, eating, chatting, girlwatching, flirting, drinking, socializing, and connecting. It's a permanent food festival. 
Traffic Rules. While the above is happening, what happens to regular traffic, you ask? The answer is not easy do describe without getting into quantum physics. Like purely theoretical particles, Surat cars and several quadrillion bikes can somehow occupy two places at the same time, pass through each other, affect each other's speed and position randomly, as they transport themselves and their passengers through the crowd in a chaotic Brownian Motion of zips, scrapes, near-misses, music and horns. Right of way is determined by speed, size, nerve, and horn volume, traffic lights are amusing entertainment at best, and helmets, seatbelts, and carrying capacity are the gentle suggestions made by snowflakes in hell. 
And lastly, add the world-famous Garba. Being the last day of Navratri, Gujratis from Surat to Syracuse will be out on the street dressed to kill, a thousand floodlights blaze in every field, park, and society parking lot, and a million variations of Phalguni Pathak float in the evening air. It's awesome. The entire city is out, and unlike the Cal Pujos, it's not limited to specific localities with travelling in-between; the festival is literally everywhere. 

Friday, October 08, 2010


Don’t stay in NYC; it’s expensive, unnecessary. The suburbs are far better, connected via subways and trains. You need to make an early start, but it’s just once a day; we make every minute count, heading, shivering in the chill at dawn from Linden, to Penn St., New York. NYC can be really explored only on foot. If you’re in a cab, bus, any vehicle, you’re disconnected, don’t get the feel of the city.

You think you’re ready for it, having seen it in a hundred TV episodes and a thousand films, but trust me; nothing prepares you for that first step out of the subway’s humid, crowded cacophony into the vastness of the Greatest City On Earth, where buildings rear up ruler-straight, man-made cliffs, geometry on steroids.

A quick breakfast, a brisk ten-minute walk, and we’re at the Empire State Building, exactly in time to catch it opening to the public, but too early for the crowds. We spend almost an hour at there, watching the sunrise over the megapolis, hearing the rising humming, buzzing susurration of the city waking up 80 stories below.

By the time we’re down, it’s warm, sunny, and beautiful. We walk down to the Museum of Modern Art, another quintessentially NY event; it’s definitely a must-see, summing up all of NY’s modernity, avant-gardism, and also it’s quirkiness, the ability to make bare functionality into art.

Lunch, and we spend the afternoon in Central Park, strolling, watching people. Skaters in a open rink, dancing on wheels, whirling around in bizarre costumes; dancers, a family of singers under a bridge, filling the dim space with ethereally beautiful music; street musicians; live statues that suddenly, startlingly, come to life to acknowledge you with thanks if you drop a tip for them; a guy blowing giant soap bubbles, to the delight of an admiring crowd of kids on rollerblades; horse-drawn carriages, joggers, cops, picnickers… it’s an awesome experience, if you sit back, relax, and soak it in.

Tip: don’t try to visit everything, you’ll end up missing all of it. Get into a place, spend time, absorb it’s essence.  

Over the next few days, we visit Ground Zero, the nadir of ‘disaster tourism’, which turned out to be a disappointment; just a giant hole in the ground, surrounded by security and scaffolding. We also did one of the must-do’s of a NY visit, the Statue of Liberty, but via the Staten Island Ferry going past it, saving half a day, instead of the tourist boats, and an evening in Times Square. They say that if you stand here long enough, eventually you will meet everyone in the world; looking at the size and diversity of the crowd there, you know this is true.

The golden Bull in the financial district was a conveyor belt of tourists posing and taking snaps;  Chinatown was slightly shady, very interesting, and in character, world apart from the other streets we’d been on, with English taking a very poor second place to Chinese text on all the signs and shop boards, and where every face on the street, and every conversation overheard as we passed, was Asian; Little Italy, a little further northwards, was filled with interesting little boutiques and shops with fascinating window displays (I remember a twenty-foot high wall of beautifully polished sewing machines in one) with nice shopping, lots of small exotic dogs, and awesome bakeries, which are a must-try; Magnolia is one where the line stretches around the block and you have a good chance of finding yourself waiting in line next Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, who are huge fans of this place. During lunch, we saw Sex and the City’s Mr. Big on the sidewalk catch a cab – can’t get more classic NY than that!

The East Village is the counterculture hub, with goths, psychics, music and comic stores filled with fascinating memorabilia, roadside cafes and pubs in profusion – another new world to explore.
And, of course, no New York Experience will ever be complete without a taste of the famous subways; At least once, try to buy a ticket and find they appropriate train to get from one place to another. In Penn St. station, amongst the labyrinthine corridors, platforms, levels and sublevels, and searingly bright lights, the chatter and hum of millions of footsteps, public announcements, cellphones and conversations mixes with the deep subterranean rumble and clatter of the trains whooshing through the dark tunnels, and everything is a hurried, humid, deafening and blinding kaleidoscope of confusion until you finally step out into the crisp, chill air, glowing with the self-satisfaction that comes with having come that one step closer to becoming a native New Yorker. 
If you have time, don’t forget to visit the Meatpacking District, Greenwich, the Upper East Side, and Soho; all familiar places from Hollywood and TV, not to be missed in real life either.
NYC is supposed to be fast and rude, but by America’s standards, not India’s; growing up in the midst of crowds and the constant fight for space and free time, we felt right at home. We saw it as it is – brisk, efficient, and so incredibly diverse, you could be lost here a lifetime and still never see it all.

Two very important pieces of advice for new visitors to New York, from a local – one, walk fast; two, take all the pictures you want, but don’t block people. These are two critical things tourists forget, becoming irritants to the city that has things to do, places to go, and all too little time. Besides, who wants to look like, as the locals say for the overawed tourists, that they stepped right off the boat?
Stroll around, wear walking shoes and carry an umbrella, use the subways, eat mustard-laden hot dogs at roadside food carts, talk to the people. And most of all, don’t be afraid, and explore. The city is a microcosm of Earth - everyone is here.

And there’s everything to discover. 

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


It’s early morning. Streamers of mist slide over the car, rippling past in the wet air as we race down Route 476. The landscape’s shrouded in fog, dim, eerily silent, and empty save the occasional car whipping past, driver in his private four-wheeled warm cocoon, and rarely, a behemoth eighteen-wheeler lumbering past like Star Wars’ opening scene.

Then, gradually, the sun’s warmth pierces through, the mist dissipates, and as we move North, the glorious autumn colors begin to emerge. Lush greenery gives way to brilliant yellows, vivid browns, and fiery reds; entire tracts of forest flame, blazing color in the sunshine. We’re driving up to one of the planet’s great natural spectacles, the largest waterfall in the world – Niagara Falls.

Reach early evening, just in time to catch the last Maid of the Mist tour boat. These boats take you into the basin beneath the falls, in the center of the falls’ horseshoe curve; there, you’re surrounded on 3 sides by a wall of water so gigantic, it defies description. At four million cubic feet a minute, the experience ceases to be something to see or feel; you become a part of it, a tiny particle in an awesome display of elementalism. The foaming spray blinds, drenches, deafens, and drowns you, the closest you’ll get to breathing water. It’s not the flying rain of monsoon storms. It’s heavier, more mineral; smells, tastes, feels different. Snow-white, chilling cold under cloudy autumn skies, the falls tower up almost two hundred feet… and everything you worried about for so long, work, money, everything, suddenly feels… insignificant. All you can do is just be, exist in the face of grandeur.

We walk later through caves on the American side, along wooden walkways constructed around the base – the only way to get close enough to actually touch the falls. Luckily, there’s enough sun to let us dry off before evening, when the October wind carries a sharp bite.

At night, a light display is switched on; as glowing reds, and soft, powdery whites play across them, the falls transform into something unearthly, alternating between heaven and hell. It’s a surreal vision, and never to be missed; and if you can, get a Canadian visa, because the US might have the falls, but it’s the Canadians that get to enjoy the best view.

Apart from the Falls, there’s not much to do in Niagara, so we head back next morning. It’s a day’s drive to New York, a brilliant experience. The Amish countryside, as you pass through Pennsylvania and Delaware, is vast, flat, and spread open for hundreds of miles, all directions. Lightning flickers on the horizon; being autumn, it’s Halloween season, and all the towns and houses we pass are putting up decorations. Pumpkins everywhere – on the roadside, in the markets, lit up as lanterns, in bread, cakes, even ice-cream and tea. After some irresistible stops at farm diaries for natural, fresh icecream (mmm!) and lunch, it’s late evening by the time we reach our New Jersey hotel. 



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