72 hours in NYC

 

Post a hectic yet eventful and fruitful trip to the Big Apple, I sit down to chronicle this, and I wonder, what do I say about New York that hasn’t been said before?

That it embodies a unique kind of crowded chaos, which by now has become such an embedded part of the city, that its almost impossible to imagine what the Big Apple would be without it, to the inhabitant and visitor alike.

Or that the city stands tall for the ideal symbolization of the adage that unity comes from diversity – the diversities of ethnicities, personalities, cultures and identities, that seamlessly converge to give us this one breed of driven, fast, busy, ready-to-take-on-life New Yorkers.

Or that I’ve heard locals tell me that one can have spent their entire life here, and still feel like a tourist, for there’ll always be a part of New York you haven’t explored.

This time round, it wasn’t my first trip to the city. I’d been here before, as the dreamy, doe-eyed, slightly awestruck tourist, when I’d done the city bus tour, been to the Empire State building, Central Park, the Met, so on and so forth. But a big believer in ‘feeling places’ over ‘seeing places’, I was determined this trip round, to see the unseen, and experience the New Yorker flavor in its true sense.

And it was with this very intent, and determination that I began my brief NYC sojourn. And an unplanned 72 hours, ended up including an entire myriad of experiences, a pleasant mixture of the planned and intentional, and spontaneous surprises.

I’d grown up on a staple diet of American chick-flicks, some of my favorite ones being the Christmassy rom-coms with the city as the backdrop, which meant that wanting to witness the city’s Christmas fervor and spirit had made it to my bucket list for a long,long time. And I wasn’t disappointed, for it’s when you see how the city celebrates Christmas, you realize that in New York, Christmas isn’t just a festival, rather a celebration of life. The Christmas market at Union Square. The lights on 5th Av. And truly enchanting, the magnificent tree at Rockefeller – all of which are worth at least one visit, if not more.

I happened to spend good quality time with a dear friend who’s a Manhattan born and bred proud bookworm and self-proclaimed Nerd. And while I’m not entirely sure of my status as a bookworm, I do hold a love for books, bookshops, libraries and the literary universe close to my heart. Thanks to Jo, I got to get a taste of the a literature freak’s slice of the New York pie, in the form of Books of Wonder, the city’s oldest and largest bookstore dedicated to children’s literature, and The Strand, an iconic New York based bookstore, where you could find books on possibly every topic under the sun, along with an entire plethora of souvenirs celebrating the city, and literature and reading in general.

Meeting with another dear friend from high school took me on a separate trip within the trip. All the way to the non-debatably the most glamorous, glitzy part of Manhattan – the ever cliched, yet magical Times Square. The last time I visited Times Square, I was awestruck by the hustle and the bustle, how the crowds throng to the place almost 24*7 as if it were a kind of man-made human shrine, the shiny, larger-than-life billboards, and the plethora of stores, restaurants and bars et al. And I felt the similar feeling and awe this time round too. Though the icing on the cake this time turned out to be getting to see what I’d always wanted to – a musical on Broadway, which in this instance, turned out to be the Oprah Winfrey produced The Color Purple, a tale of Celie, a black woman in the 1960s and the trials and tribulations she faced because of being black, female and poor, and how she ultimately managed to triumph all odds, emerging victorious. A great story at heart, added to which were stellar performances made this a visual treat in every manner.

Yet, if I had to pick a highlight of my trip, it would be the hidden food & drink gems, I was treated to, all courtesy my local friends, who had discovered them and were only too happy to introduce them to me. Within my 72 hours in the city, I went from hitting a couple of quaint cafes, with coffee and freshly-baked sweet-treats to die for, a tiny, completely missable Thai restaurant which could seat no more than a dozen, yet managed to serve up some of the most delicious Thai fare I’ve tasted in my lifetime, and a couple of tiny family-run Italian restaurants which with their fresh ingredients and rich flavors, took me on a mini-culinary escapade to Italy. And not to mention, my newly acquired taste for green tea latte, which I know will stay for a while.

And as an eventful 72 hours came to an end, I came to a conclusion. New York isn’t jus a city, its a vibe. Paradoxically, while its overall impersonal, its also completely customizable. There’s a New York for everyone. For the skyscraper lover to one for parks. From the art aficionado to the live comedy junkie. For the one who’d rather hang out at the eclectic Brooklyn bars to the admirer of tiny, hidden quaint cafes. And while I know that personally, there’s still a lot I still have to discover, I know it’s at least a step closer to being friendlier with the city, in a manner where I anticipate that after a few more visits, I would’ve possibly reached a stage where I will understand the ins and outs of the Subway, will have explored a lot more in terms of neighbourhoods, easteries and such sundry, and will be able to manoeuvre myself around without Google Maps in at least a minuscule part of the NYC maze.

So long. Till then, adieu, NYC. 

Of Belonging and Unbelonging

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was born in a city. And she grew up in that same city. And she lived her entire life there. And whenever she said ‘home’, they knew exactly where she meant.

Except that I’m not that person.

Because I grew up in one place. And then lived in another. And another. And another. Which meant, that after a while, while my hometown remained the same, the term home stopped implying a place. Rather, I found that I left my heart in multiple places over time, and there sprouted many ‘mini’ homes, each of which I came to love as much as the other, if not more. And it took me a while to understand how home didn’t always mean a place, it meant an emotion, a feeling, a certain sense of ownership and belonging to the place one lives in. And what’s more, in my case this didn’t just pertain to a single place, rather a series of places, each of which I once belonged to. And once you’ve belonged to a certain place, you’ve belonged to it forever.

I’ve fiercely belonged to my hometown Kolkata, a place where the classic culmination of old meets new formed the backdrop to my growing up years. Where memories of the sight of the majestic Howrah Bridge and it’s younger cousin the Vidyasagar Setu, the smells of the pungent fish markets and the wet smell of the earth before it rained in the monsoon, and the sounds of the dhaak during the Durga Puja linger on in the mind, even years after having actively lived there. Where summer season meant swimming every afternoon at one of the numerous British clubs, and the short winters, rounds of badminton in the evenings.  And if there’s one thing one hometown has taught me amongst others, it is the importance of being rooted in one’s culture, of never forgetting one’s humble origins, irrespective of where the future might take them.

I’ve belonged to the the tiny county of Warwickshire in the UK, where I went for my undergraduate education, and where I technically came of age. Where I grew to love the occasional, yet gorgeous British summer, witnessed and lived through snowy postcard winters, and discovered an undying love for Pimms, mulled wine, scones & jam, strawberries & cream, and hot chocolate with marshmallows & Nutella.

I’ve belonged to New Delhi, and its newer, glamorous sibling Gurgaon, where I started my first ever job, where I came to love the diversity and the colorful chaos, so eminent of the place – from the noisy, crowded bazaars of Chandni Chowk, to the more contemporary skyline of Gurgaon, marked with highrises and glass buildings with MNC logos. Where every person from the rustic auto-rickshaw driver to the salwar-kameez clad aunty in the metro to the young professional caught in the rat race, had an individual tale to tell.

And now, here I am, writing this in Chicago, possibly another pit-stop along the way, for I am optimistic that this life will take me places. And while it hasn’t even been a month of my having been here, I already feel my ties to the city being nurtured and only strengthened over time. The hustle-bustle of the big city, with its picture-perfect suburbs and the prevalent artsy vibe have won me over, and I know this is a place I shall grow to love over time and hold close to my heart. And like every other place I’ve lived in, I know I’ll belong here, too.

 

Travel, or tourism?

I’m a self-confessed travel addict. And equally fortunate to be quite well-travelled for a 24 year old, thanks to my travel-obsessed family and our trips over the years – traveling extensively, both within the country and abroad. And I’ll credit my family for introducing me to the art of what I’ll call ‘eventful travel’, for our style of travel was anything but conventional. From a tiny unheard-of European town to a jungle in Africa, we went all the way when it came to exploring the globe.

Despite this, if you asked me a few years ago – my definition and understanding of the term ‘travel’ would encompass a journey to so
me place on the planet, the idea of being in the place itself and few activities – shopping, sightseeing, adventure sports – depending on the place e visited. Travel meant a holiday, a break for a temporary period from the routine of everyday living, and an activity I enjoyed being part of.

However, particularly over my last few travel jaunts, my understanding of travel has come to mean something else altogether. I’ll say I’ve gone from enjoying travel as an activity, to appreciating the life-changing impact it has on me personally. I’ve gone from being a tourist to becoming a traveler. Which means that I don’t enjoy only ‘seeing’ new places. Seeing new places is tourism. Travel to me, has now become an experience, not an activity. One where you don’t just see places. Travel is ‘feeling’ places. Getting to personally appreciate the uniqueness of each place and taking that back with you, is the true gift of travel.

Feeling the organized mayhem when you’re riding the London tube. The coiffe & culture when you’re in the quaint sidewalk cafes in Paris. The undying vibrant chaos on the streets New York. The old-world charm of New Delhi, You get the idea.

travel or tourism

In my books, there’s a marked difference between a tourist and a traveller. The tourist is the person you’ll spot at the so-called tourist spots, all armed with a map, camera and an itinerary with a clear agenda and idea of what he’s looking for. The traveller, on the other hand is the person you’ll find aimlessly walking around, seeing everything and everyone, soaking in the place and not knowing what he’ll find next. The tourist takes back pictures, the traveller takes back learnings and memories and experiences. I’m not saying that one should be only a tourist or traveller. Be the tourist, but also be the traveller. By all means visit the famous places, but also take out time to explore the place like a local. Walk the streets without knowing where you’re going, try the local cuisine at a restaurant you’ve never heard of, strike up a conversation with locals if you can. If all you’ve done over your trip is visit tourist spots over the day and then stick to McDonald’s for meals because it’s a ‘safe’ option, then you might as well have done this by seeing pictures of the place in the comfort of your bedroom.

Travel isn’t about being in your comfort zone. Rather, it’s quite the contrary. Travel is about accepting the challenge of physically taking yourself to a place that you’ve possibly not been before, and experiencing what it feels like to be part of a different culture, even if temporarily. Travel is about taking the opportunity to expand and grow your horizon. Travel is the realization that there is just so much more in the world beyond the radius in which you exist, work and live. And while the tourist may return with more photographs, souvenirs and shopping, it is the traveller who truly comes back richer.