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Prague day 2: The one where we defied the laws of space and time

Kutná Hora came highly recommended by a good friend. The way he put it, if you do a weekend trip to Prague, it would be criminal not to swing by this quaint little town. Silver was found here sometime in the 10th century and the consequent mining and allied businesses catapulted the town to great prominence between the 13th and 16th centuries. In fact, it was in direct competition with Prague as an economic and cultural center. For such a small town, the density of monuments and places of cultural significance is truly astounding.

However, what motivated us to wake up at 4 in the morning (when many of our hostel mates were just getting back and ready to crash), wrap ourselves in our thickest scarves and make it in time for that morning train ride was, I admit, our ghoulish fascination with the ossuary in Sedlec. Somewhere within us, our 10 year old selves still live, and assert themselves lustily at times like these. We could barely contain our excitement when we saw the sign at the train stop that said “Sedlec.” And nothing about the stop itself betrayed the wonders that lay beyond those desolate tracks.

We made our way to the information center at Sedlec and got maps and some pointers about entry tickets. We needed coffee and calories before we started exploring. A tiny coffee shop was spotted near the ossuary which had excellent honey cake and half decent coffee.

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We visited the church of the Assumption of our Lady, a beautiful Gothic church with high, vaulted ceilings, a conch-shaped spiral staircase and creamy interiors glowing in the morning sun. It was the perfect counterpoint to our next stop, the ossuary.

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A small graveyard served as our entry point to the church that housed the ossuary. It is said to house between 40-70,000 human skeletons. The abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Sedlec is believed to have sprinkled some of the earth that he brought back with him from his sojourns in the Holy Lands (specifically Golgotha) on this property. The graveyard attained a holy aura and became a highly desirable catholic burial site in Central Europe. The Black Plague of the mid-14th century and the Hussite wars of the early 15th century complicated things a bit. The abbey could no longer keep up with the new arrivals. The existing Gothic church was built with a lower level that would function as an ossuary. A half-blind monk of the order was in charge of organizing the bones that were dug up from the existing grave site. From the little that I have read, it appears that he made neat piles or stacks, similar to how bones have been organized in ossuaries in other parts of Europe. The current, more macabre, yet aesthetically pleasing arrangement is the brain-child of František Rint, a wood carver, who was employed to re-organize the bones in 1870. Standing at the entrance to the ossuary, you have to wonder, at what point while looking at this pile of human remains did it strike him, that this was his life’s work, the work that he would put his signature to. Which he did, in bone.

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You had to admire the elaborate central chandelier that contains at least one of every bone in the human body, flanked by garlands of skulls, bone crucifixes, smaller bone chandeliers and towers of skulls and cross bones.

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What we loved the best was the coat of arms, such attention to detail, the bones arranged as if woven together.

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At most of the Catholic burial sites that I have been to, an awareness of mortality hangs heavy in the air. Death is serious business. And there is no escaping the finality of it: the fact that people who once were are no more. The bizarre arrangement of bones in the ossuary somehow deprives death of that seriousness and finality. It appears more likely that these people shed their skeletons and walked into an alternate dimension.

From the ossuary we walked to the Italian Court. It was the seat of the Royal mint, a store for the silver ore and royal abode all rolled into one. There was a wedding in progress and the place was cordoned off.

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We decided to walk to St. Barbara’s church directly and skip the museums and churches in between. The weather was slightly warmer now and the walk through the quaint, narrow streets with their tiny boutique shops and buildings painted in pastel colors with ribbons and calligraphy was a real pleasure.

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However, none of this prepared us for the approach to the church: a walkway lined with statues of saints and religious figures on one side and the stately Jesuit College on the other. The railing with the statues gave way to a steep slope draped with terraced vineyards. Late autumn fog obscured the church from view until mid-walkway, the spires emerged, and as you got closer, the rest of the church revealed itself in all it’s majesty. Sandeep and I are both convinced that this place was the inspiration for Peter Jackson’s Gondor. It feels magical, in an ancient, sacred kind of way.

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We walked through the church, taking in the extravagant stained glass windows, the high, vaulted ceiling, the flying buttresses. The ceiling was dominated by coats of arms. Since the church was dedicated to St. Barbara, the patron Saint of miners, there were quite a few representations of miners and mining within the church. When you realize that a lack of funds led to less than half of the original plan being realized, you try to imagine what that might have looked like. And then you accept that you can’t. You are overwhelmed by what you see in front of you.

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From the terrace of the nearby chapel, we spent some time admiring the flying buttresses, truly magnificent and wing-like on this church. The relative isolation of the church, the beautiful gardens surrounding it, and the vineyards on the slope, make this terrace a place of quiet meditation. We are thankful for this chance to rest a bit before we continue.

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After we leave the church, we decide to step into a nearby restaurant for lunch. It was one of the best serendipitous food discoveries of our lives. It was not that the fare offered was particularly unique or the service particularly stellar. It is just that the food was prepared perfectly. It was clear that everything tasted precisely how it was supposed to taste: the beef in the goulash tender but not pulpy, the sauce of exactly the right consistency, the bramboraky (potato pancakes) crispy on the outside while soft within and mildly spiced, the sausages with just enough heat.

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The beer was great and what was supposed to be a quick lunch turned into an hour long indulgence. We realized that we had ten minutes to get back to the train station. The guys in the restaurant told us it was a 45 minute walk and gave us the directions to the nearest taxi stand.

Surprise! Surprise! There were no taxis at the taxi stand. We weighed our options: the 45 minute walk versus hitching a ride vs hoping a taxi would magically appear in the next five minutes. We decided to make a run for it. Considering our height and how fast we ran that day (we broke our existing records), it was a true miracle that we made it to the station on time. Also a 45 minute walk is a 5 minute run for Usain Bolts like us. Or that guy at the restaurant was messing with us. Or we defied the laws of Physics.

When we got back to Prague, we had a quick cuppa’and headed to the Vyšehrad. It is quieter here and the views of the city and the Vtlava are breathtaking. Within the fort, there is a cemetery where many notable Czech citizens are buried like Alphonse Mucha and Karel Čapek. There were a series of gardens and structures within. We spent most of our time there walking through the gardens.

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We stumbled into the Basilica of St Peter and Paul but after our encounter with St. Barbara’s earlier that day, we found our sense of wonder significantly depleted. It was a lovely church with an art deco inspired interior. However, we were still processing everything we had seen earlier in Kutná Hora. We called it a day and headed back to Wenceslas Square to have an early dinner. The cobbled streets of Prague and the 5-minute-Physics-defying-run had done a number on our feet at this point and the Thai Massage parlors around the square with their neon-lit rickshaws at the entrance became increasingly hard to resist. We got the 30 minute foot massage which came with a complementary cup of green tea: Bliss. My feet felt the love and kept thanking me through dinner (Goulash at a non-descript joint near the square). That night we slept like babies.

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A Date with the Dutch Masters

27th. Breakfast at Central Park. The Waffles and Dinges truck. The two of us dig into “the Turtle”: a Belgian waffle topped with a rich, gooey caramel sauce, walnuts, powdered sugar and whipped cream. Pair this with hot chocolate and you are signing up for the sugar high of your life. By the way, dinges means toppings, if you were wondering. Not some controlled substance Belgians are smuggling in with their waffles. Though I wouldn’t be surprised. They were that good. (Also try: the Spekuloos spread. Made with Belgian gingerbread-cinnamon cookies. If you’re not sold yet, you’re just one of those mean witches who try to cook children in industrial size ovens. Just sayin’)

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After our colossal breakfast, we savoured the remainder of our NY morning, surrounded by pigeons and horse carriages and children playing catch. Bliss.

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Once the effects of the sugar wore off, we walked along Fifth Ave to the Frick collection. The heavy duty museum leg of our trip was about to begin. Another long wait lay ahead of us. After the lesson learnt about sunk costs at the Empire State, we debated hanging around or just trying some other museum. Both of us had our hearts set on seeing “The girl with the Pearl” or the Dutch Mona Lisa as she was called. We voted to stay put. The middle-aged British couple behind us was in the middle of a heated quarrel about the wait time. Something about the wife told me her name was either Miranda or Fiona. Five minutes later, I found out I was right, she was Miranda and he won’t stand for this nonsense and they’re going to the Whitney instead. So far, 30 minutes. A very fashionable old woman in a long mink coat, wearing very red lipstick with red nails and a huge gold ring walks across the road. The traffic seems to stop for her. At this point I must admit with great embarrassment that seeing this happening on 5th Avenue was on my bucket list. I saw this in some old ad/TV show when I was a kid and I have always wanted to see it for real. Somehow it is the ultimate image of glamour: a woman of a certain age, experienced, sophisticated and aware of the power she possesses, stopping traffic in NY. It’s not a fetish, I swear. It’s sort of similar to wanting to see a Bengal Tiger in its natural habitat or watch Bill Clinton talking live at a political rally.

The Australian woman in front of us starts a conversation. She is a psychologist by training and also a recruiter for the Aussie Government. She talks to us about the museums she likes in NY and other cities. About Australia. About her daughters.  About pashmina shawls from India. I think it’s nice to chat while we’re waiting but what I really like is the rhythm and tone of her speech. It seems to convey pretty much everything she is saying: I am strong. I am independent. I am smart. I am extremely capable. I am Australian. It was very good for interviews. Or life in general, I guess. I don’t think a taxi driver or a salesman would mess with her. We were chatting for a good 45 minutes very intimately and yet we managed to forget to exchange names. We went our separate ways at the museum and whenever we crossed paths, she seemed to be having a rollicking good time examining the Dutch masters (her favourites, she told us).

This is one of the best designed and curated museums in NY. The collection is small and therefore quite manageable on a quiet morning. The setting is exquisite. It was the private home of Mr. Henry Clay Frick, the steel magnate, who built it with this collection in mind. And the audio tour is superb: easy to use with just enough detail. The vast majority of the paintings are portraits and the two of us love portraits. We loved these in particular: Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Moore facing each other across the mantelpiece both painted by Hans Holbein. Both are magnificent in terms of the attention to detail: the facial features, the irregularities in complexion, the texture of the clothing, the detail in the jewelry and background. And yet, it was abundantly clear where the artist’s sympathy lay. There is a nobility in the face and aspect of More that is missing in Cromwell. (Left: More, Right: Cromwell)

thomas more          Thomas Cromwell

Another painting that deeply moved me was “St Francis in Ecstasy” by Giovanni Bellini. It is one of the few paintings that really capture the impact of a strong and unwavering commitment to spirituality. The decision to depict the divine as light and wind, something elemental, yet indescribable is quite brilliant. All we are allowed to see are the deeply felt effects: illumination, humility and reverence.

St Francis in Ectsasy Giovanni Bellini

There were two Vermeers in the permanent collection but “The girl with the pearl ear-ring” really is something else. The appearance of being caught in the middle of something, her mouth partially open and the slight moistness of her lip catching the light against the dark background was really fascinating. There is something about this painting that made it difficult to tear yourself away. To be honest, I have always preferred her to the Mona Lisa. There is an urgency to her mystery that keeps you searching for clues, guessing at what she must have been doing before and after this snapshot was taken. For that is what this is, the earliest snapshot, capturing someone in the midst of a fluid movement before she slips away, perhaps never to be seen again?

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We spent so much time wandering around the Frick, listening to the entire audio guide; it soon became apparent that we did not have time for another museum visit that day. We walked to the Café Sabarsky at the Neu Galerie to get lunch and discuss our change of plan. Though this place is definitely on the fancier side, the prices were not ridiculous and the food was delicious. It is modelled on a turn of the century Viennese café and the décor, seating and cutlery are meant to sustain this fantasy. It would be stretching it to say that I was transported to the fin-de-siècle but I think it is fair to say it felt very…. European. The pretzels were firm and toasty, the sausage paired with the mustard relish thing was new to me but I ended up loving it. The sauerkraut and garlic mashed potatoes? Perfection. We couldn’t leave a Viennese café without trying the pastries on offer. And here they blew it out of the park. We shared a Mozatortte, a layered cake with pistachio chocolate ganache filling topped with marzipan and whipped cream. The minute I have some free time, I am going to figure out how to make that cake. I am aware it takes a solid 4 hours of my time, but still.

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Since it was too late in the day for more museums, we decided to check out Times Square. What was the big deal, why were people so fascinated by this place awash in advertising?

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Bright as day, even in the middle of the night, everyone said, and they were not kidding. I am convinced they need a miniature fusion reactor to keep this place lit up like this all night. If there is some sort of temple to modern consumer culture, brand obsession and narcissism, this was definitely it. It captured the allure of advertising and branding and the need for self-expression through consumption. I am not judging, mind you, merely stating the obvious conflict. Constantly monitoring your brand is unavoidable for millenials, being the first generation to come of age in the digital era, constantly on view for the public gaze. We were also the first to come of age under the shadow of globalization, where the reach of most brands became truly International/Universal. The pressure to conform is unprecedented. So is the pressure not be seen as conforming. This makes Times Square and everything it represents appear shallow and energizing simultaneously, a space of deep introspection before our consumer Gods if you will. A temple in more ways than one. ;)

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Sandeep being the biriyani-phile that he is, we couldn’t leave NY without trying the famous Biriyani Cart. It was not where it was supposed to be and it was oddly spelt: Biriyani Card and not Cart. The Bangladeshi man at the counter told us he had been selling Biriyani for 18 years and that he would make it extra spicy for us, since we were old friends. Desi bonding: the most dependable soul connection anywhere on Mother Earth.  :) It was unlike any Biryani we have had so far (and we’ve tried them all) and we sort of wished we had ordered four. Definitely check this place out when you are in NY.

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Empire State of Mind

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Day 2

We are up at 7 and out the door in an hour. Our destination: the WTC. We have heard about the Pakistani Tea House in the vicinity and decide to head there for breakfast. Turns out that was an excellent decision. It is more of a lunch place: simple non-greasy food, similar to what your favourite Punjabi Aunty might make when you visit (rotis, daal makhni, chana, saag paneer, tikka and kheer.) However, this place is called a tea house for a reason. They make the best tea I have had in the US of A. It’s the I-am-ready-to-play-world-class-tabla/dance-bharatnatyam-like-a-boss/conquer-the-world kind of tea. Our ambitions were more modest. Being able to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge while our iPhone told us it was -1°C was sufficient. For now. My face was already a popsicle by the time I got to the walkway. However, the sight of a girl in a pink dinosaur pajama walking ahead of me kept me going. I had to see if the pajama had teeth. Fairly odd compulsion, I agree, but I think it got me halfway across. Watching the NY skyline from the bridge is a fairly enjoyable way to spend your NY morning. Also, if it was not obvious already, excellent people watching opportunity. (And yes, if you were wondering, big felt teeth.)

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Next up, the Cloisters. This museum is the home of all things medieval and Christian. If you take the subway, be warned that it is a solid 15 minute walk up a hill to get to the medieval-ish castle that houses this collection. The space is open and airy with plenty of small courtyards. The work is organized chronologically. What I found particularly interesting was how earlier in the history of the religion, Christ, the virgin and the disciples were routinely portrayed as having dark skin and being fairly stocky and of medium build (also with curly hair and beard). This is consistent with them being middle-eastern gents and ladies. A lot of this early work is from Spain with maybe a few from Turkey. As the religion spread to the rest of Europe (France, England, Scandinavia), we start seeing more of the blonde, blue-eyed incarnation that we are familiar with today. This has parallels with the evolution of religious art throughout the world, of course. While the original Draupadi and Krishna are both described as being dark as night (therefore their names Krishnaa and Krishna respectively), most modern re-tellings of the Mahabharata on TV employ light skinned actors and actresses to essay these roles.

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And why the medieval obsession with stained glass?  Turns out there was a theological reason. Glass was solid and yet it allowed light to filter through. This was thought to be similar to how the Virgin Mary could be with child without engaging in sexual relations with a man. It was fascinating to me, this constant tussle between faith and reason, people struggling with dogma and trying to make sense of it.

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The Cloisters was the furthest point on our itinerary and it took a solid 45 minutes to get back to The Village on the subway. We were glad. There was a man. With a guitar. A soulful, guttural voice. Singing in Spanish. Need I say more?

By this point, we were famished. Everyone talks about NY hot dogs and Grey’s papaya was supposed to be the best. It was as good a re-fueling station as any and dirt cheap. Grey’s is a tiny corner store with a bar along the windows where you can stand and eat. Paper fruit decorations hang from the ceiling. We loved the casual neighbourhood vibe but before I forget: best hot dogs in NY. No contest. Yes, we did try Nathans Famous and we still think Greys is awesome. It’s about proportion actually. The dog, the bun, the sauerkraut and relish, everything tasted good and everything was in the right proportion. Not too dry or soggy, not too big or small. Just right, like Goldilocks would say.

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We walked to Washington Square Park. It was a small park, there seemed to be a lot of families living in the locality and of course, as promised we saw the famed chess-players. They packed up at 6 but the games seemed pretty intense while they were on. We walked around the village a bit. It was difficult to imagine that this was where the Stonewall riots happened or where the Beat generation originated. There is really nothing Bohemian or quirky about it’s vibe right now. More like quiet residential neighbourhood. Lots of stores selling chess gear though and a dude at the corner offered to sharpen our skills in 30 minutes flat. Andy Warhol? Jimmi Hendrix? Truman Capote? Greenwich Village exhales quiet resignation, as if to say, “What do I say bro, that was a long time ago.”

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We thought we’d have another quick bite before we went on our way. There was this brightly lit, tiny corner-store near the subway station. It was called “Fayda” and it specialized in Chinese bakery items. The coffee was a bit on the milky side (still good) but seriously, who goes to this place for coffee? They have wonderful beef puff pastries: light and flaky and buttery with a spicy filling, their cakes taste like clouds and they have the most unusual cheesecake flavours: passion fruit, mango, litchi (all of them wonderful). I know that a lot of people like the pork buns but the BBQ pork filling was a bit too sweet for Sandeep and me.

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The Empire State building is an obligatory New York stop. If only we knew sunset was peak time at this landmark. Everyone wanted to have their own “Sleepless in Seattle” moment and I kid you not, it took us a solid 2 hours to make it to the 86th floor observation deck. A week later when a friend explained the economic term “sunk cost” to me, I wanted to tell him that no explanation was required. Once you’re 45 minutes in, it’s impossible to turn back. Since we had all the time in the world, it didn’t make a dent in our schedule but if you’re on one of those 48 hours in NY trips, beware. After 4:30, the ESB is a strict no-no. I must admit that the view is breathtaking though. It is ridiculously cold at that height, my cheeks and my nose were frozen, I could feel my blood not move inside my face. After the 2 hour wait, we lasted all of 30 minutes in that biting cold. And yet….and yet….I must admit that I totally forgot about the wait when I saw the lights of NY spread out beneath me like a carpet. Traffic moved like lava between the skyscrapers. It was a fierce, modern kind of beauty, defined by steel and electricity and clean straight lines but beautiful nonetheless. On the ground, we saw the lines blur, things got messy and a bit chaotic. At this height, it is possible to enjoy the vision that the people who built this city may have had in mind, the blueprint before life happens to it.

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My 30 minutes were up and my sage on the mountain act is getting old. It’s time to hit the streets again. Specifically, time to try some NY pizza. Inspired by a girl who got breakfast for some of the homeless at Penn Station, we decided to break bread with a guy we saw on the street. A lot of people have been hit really hard by the recession. We are students and we get paid a stipend for our 7 day work week. And I admit, we do complain at times, mostly about the weekends. When we hear these people tell their stories, we realize that even though we are pretty low on the food chain, we have it good. We learn, we experiment, we support ourselves, we can think about going to the hospital if we are really sick, we have enough money to spend a couple of days in NY. Some of these people were teachers, some worked in software, some of them need to support children and they are all homeless. Empathy is poor solace but that is all we have to offer, and though we mean well, everything we say or do feels cheap.

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Remind Me….

Sometimes the simple act of remembering can restore a sense of beauty and balance in a moment of fragility. I was in crisis mode this morning and as usual retreated to the world of books and imagined worlds-in this case Joe Sacco’s “Palestine.” He recounts how refugees at Balata access their memories of better times by listening to Um Khultoum’s “Fakarouni.” It means remind me. Of course the enormity of the pain and suffering around them is unimaginable and my immediate reaction was to tell myself to buck up and stop being silly. There are bigger problems in the wider world.

A more delayed reaction came in the form of this compulsive need to jot down one of my most recent memories of beauty, joy, connection and transcendence- New York. What if I could no longer access them because of poor memory? What if I lost the ability to preserve the small details…..the details that could conjure up the experience and allow me to relive them like Proust’s madeleine with tea.

This is the message in the bottle for all my future selves from the banks of the Hudson.

This Christmas we were in New York. It was crowded. People often compare it to the Tower of Babel. I am not sure if that comparison is apt. French and English dominated the soundscape. However, it had that melting pot diversity that thrilled me about other big cities like Mumbai and Dubai. There were people, languages, accents, clothes, food and most importantly stories from practically everywhere. The story about America being the land of immigrants, the land of opportunities and the land of the free had special resonance here, unlike anywhere else.

We got there on Christmas Eve and stayed in Newark, NJ. We got a 10 trip PATH card which would cover 5 round trips to Manhattan. Seeing the extreme police presence at the Penn Station, we were a bit apprehensive about our decision to commute from New Jersey. We soon realized that our fears were misplaced. Both the PATH and the NJ transit system were quite safe, mostly clean (public transport, give them a break) and people were mostly helpful. We spent Christmas Eve with friends in Edison (Little India is a bit of an understatement about this town. Not only did we get the full body scan by thirty Mallus at the train station, the grocery store board reads “Sabzi Mandi.” Un-ironically) IMG_2034 We got back the next morning around 10ish and after a quick bite and a nap, took the PATH to 33rd St. We got a 7 day unlimited MTA pass at the metro station which cost 29 dollars each (Public transport. Hurray!) We took our first subway trip to the Rockefeller Ctr station, got off and walked to the Christmas Tree. It was magnificent, 76ft tall according to Wikipedia, and beautifully lit. However, it was the people and the energy surrounding the tree that really got me. It was a river of people pouring into the plaza throughout the evening, then the moment of stillness, like a lake, around the Prometheus, the rink and the Atlas until the stream picked up again around the promenade. A lot of people stood around watching the Saks Fifth avenue sound and light show projected on the walls of the store, in awe, like little children. Meanwhile, at the skating rink a guy proposed to his girlfriend. What would have been a cliché was swept up in the feeling of good cheer and general boisterousness all around. It’s a wonderful world. IMG_5195   IMG_4541 IMG_4542 When we had our fill of people watching at the plaza, we headed towards Broadway. We had tickets for the “Phantom of the Opera” that evening at 8. We walked past the Minskoff, the Shubert and the Broadhurst theatres looking straight ahead for the simple neon Majestic. The performance was sold out apparently. Good thing we didn’t decide to line up for the last minute bargain at the box office, I thought. We had our hearts set on “Phantom”. My sister had been raving about it since her trip to NY nearly 10 years ago and it is the longest running show on Broadway. There must be a reason that this was so. IMG_1855 As it turns out there were multiple reasons. Where does one even begin? The theater itself is an early 20th century masterpiece with its ornate chandeliers and heavy carmine curtains, the perfect setting for this gothic tale. The acting and the singing were brilliant, but who am I kidding? The appeal of most musicals lies in their set design and costumes. And here “Phantom” is virtually unmatched. It feels like being suspended in the middle of a movie for lack of a better comparison. Many of the props and plot contrivances (the restoration of the broken chandelier in the opening scene for example) could very well be the original inspiration for more modern immersive experiences like 3D. Other than magic or witchcraft, it was difficult to explain how such a smooth and coordinated experience could be achieved.  No wonder these theater types were superstitious. Pulling it off night after night seems to require more than a liberal sprinkling of pixie dust. On our way out, we saw the orchestra on their way out of the pit, instruments in their cases, talking about beer and the subway ride home. It is remarkable to me in that moment that being part of something so sublime can actually be a job. Like an everyday job- job. IMG_1846 We see an Indian family totally mind-blown by their first Broadway show on the PATH back to Newark. They saw “Wicked.” Their teenage daughter has a lot of merchandise. The mother is just recovering from the fact that she liked it so much. She was sure it was going to be a ridiculous waste of money. We understand. Nothing prepares you for the intimacy or the wonder of the experience. They get down at Journal Square. We keep trying to re-create the electric thumping of the opening orchestral piece. We are beginning to look really ridiculous to our fellow passengers.

Current Cast of PHANTOM The Phantom of the Opera The-Phantom-of-the-Opera-Photos

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San Francisco in 48 hours

Fridays in my life typically end with seminar, free pizza and contemplating the experiments that need to be done over the weekend. There is no collective sigh that TGIF, none of the nervous eying of the hour hand as it inches slowly and grudgingly towards 5. I do not say this with the weariness of the battle-worn or the studied detachment of the cynical. All of us enter this program perfectly aware that we have to spill our blood and guts if we need to get where we are going. The above is merely a factual description of Friday evenings as a graduate student. As the Red Queen tells Alice, “You have to keep running if you want to stand still.”

                                          (courtesy: The Victorian Web)

This is why the few weekends off that we bestow on ourselves to rest and recuperate feel so remote and alien. I finished that last plasmid prep at 3 and noticed my eyes wander repeatedly to the clock, my feet pacing relentlessly. I had planned a lot of work to keep myself occupied and yet here I was at 3, staring at my lab journal, heart pounding rhythmically with that constant mental refrain, “I am going to ‘Frisco tonight.” This state of feverish anticipation made the subsequent hours a complete haze. IDs, check-in, boarding passes….a portly woman with a warm South Texas drawl made the in-flight announcements, then take-off. Before I knew it a glistening carpet of golden light spread out beneath me in the inky darkness-flames in the middle of the Ocean. I have flown into so many cities at night from around the world-Singapore, Mumbai, Dubai, Frankfurt, Chicago. The lights of the Bay area are something else entirely.

Soon it was time to shuffle out of the aircraft, claim our baggage and find a way to get to our hotel. On a whim I had decided to deviate from our traditional cheap motels with a substantial continental breakfast routine and decided to book a room at the Hotel des Arts on Bush St. Being surrounded by art (mostly while we were asleep) seemed like a very good idea at that time, even though we would have to share the bathroom with other guests. And Sandeep agreed without batting an eyelid. Now that we were on our way to said hotel however, I was a bit apprehensive. What if the other guests were filthy? What if they occupied the restroom all day making us late for our multiple engagements? What if the room we were assigned had been done by an awful artist? My thoughts were interrupted when I realized we had arrived. A very quaint, post-box red elevator took us to the reception where a short, bespectacled man in a sweater vest with neatly combed, silver-flecked hair greeted us. His name was Emil. I had always wanted to meet a quiet, bespectacled, sweater-vest wearing Emil all my life. My fears were put to rest. Nothing could possibly go wrong if Emil was in charge. My mind at ease, I had a chance to take in my surroundings. There was art everywhere-a huge life-size portrait with a textured finish, photographs, cartoons, video game art and graffiti. We almost missed the part where Emil informed us about our free upgrade. We would now have a suite with our own bath and living room. Things were just getting better and better.

Once we got the key card to our suite, we navigated multiple narrow passages and odd corners to finally arrive at 310. Was someone reading my mind? The living room was a riot of colors, shapes and portraits. It reminded me distinctly of Gustav Klimt and when I checked up on the artist, Chor Boogie, later, Whaddya know? Klimt was one of his influences. There was a very 60s vibe to it though, psychedelic, other-worldly, like walking into a kaleidoscope.

The bedroom and bath were done by Maya Hayuk and her collaborators. Though the theme of other-worldliness was continued, these spaces had more of a fairy tale, lost in the deep dark forest sort of atmosphere. Exhausted, we fell asleep, strange story-book critters and glistening stars in the India ink sky to keep us company.

We woke up really early the next morning. We wanted to see the seals on Fisherman’s Wharf before the crowds started pouring in. It had never occurred to us till later that day, how convenient a location we had chosen for our stay. China town was literally next door. The two of us made our way through the pagoda entrance, walking at a leisurely pace as the shutters were being raised and people slowly went about their little rituals for the brand new day. Fresh fruits, vegetables and eggs were being delivered to the many small family-owned grocery stores.

Older residents sat outside reading their morning papers in what I assume to be Cantonese. Flocks of pigeons congregated in front of a bank, catching up over a quick bite before they got on with the days business. And there were some old men playing chess. The last time I remember seeing that was in Kolkata, 5 years ago. Sometimes when I am in a silly mood I tell myself, “I would buy an apartment if I knew there were old men playing chess in the mornings nearby.” If that apartment were in ‘Frisco, methinks people would not find me so silly.

China town gave way to a series of quiet neighborhoods. Occasionally, agile 50-somethings walking their dogs or tall athletic women jogging toward the wharf would nod in our general direction. Soon we could hear loud, persistent yelping comingling with the crashing of the waves: these were the sounds of Pier 39. On our right, a double-decker bus whizzed by, leaving in its wake a mist of smoke that shrouded a pot of fiery tulips. When the veil was lifted, suddenly it seemed as if the whole world was a Technicolor film. Short silvern trees lined the pavements while eccentric clumps of lettuce, lilies and tulips grew cheerfully in scattered crates and barrels. We could see the seals now, lazing about on the floating decks.

I was really, truly happy that we were the first people there. We watched the seals at play for a good half hour. Seals should be the mascots for leisurely living. With their glistening skin, endearing chubbiness and complete surrender to the moment these guys really teach you something about relaxation. I didn’t even realize how calm I had become, how removed I was from everything, until I heard Sandeep’s voice as if through water, “It is getting crowded here. Do you think we should get some breakfast?” And then, when I had really broken out of the trance, “You were not really tuned in when I showed you Alcatraz, were you?” And yes, as a matter of fact, I had completely missed it. Directly, in my line of sight, at the horizon, was Alcatraz Island. With the seals diving gleefully in the foreground, it didn’t seem particularly foreboding….or even interesting.

I had worked up a solid appetite with all the walking. San Francisco’s planning and landscaping is very unusual. The roads are at unusual angles and you are constantly climbing or descending. An urban legend that was recounted fairly often while we were there involved idiot bureaucrats from Washington, who without understanding the unusually hilly terrain of the region, decided to superimpose their standard road map blue-print on the 40 odd square miles of the city. If you walk around San Francisco for a day, that story starts making a lot of sense. And it made me appreciate Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” on a whole new level. This city is a metaphor for vertigo, that movie could not be shot anywhere else. Or maybe the movie was just a straightforward ode to the city and everything else was merely incidental. Even those who have a perfect sense of balance will feel mildly dizzy after a day navigating the city streets.

I had set my heart on breakfast at “Mama’s” which had quite a reputation for its Eggs benedict and omelets. We had seen it on the way to the wharf and it appeared predictably modest and homely. What we were not expecting was the long line snaking its way around the entrance when we got back. It was just 8 in the morning. It would be 45 minutes before we were seated and we spent our time people-watching. Before I could start over-analyzing them however, two huge platters were placed on our table. I had ordered the eggs benedict with the Dungeness crab while Sandeep went with some sort of Mexican-US fusion omelet. The eggs were poached to perfection and the crabs were nice and tender (with spinach….mmmm!). I have never been a big fan of Hollandaise which they had thankfully provided as a side. The cranberry relish was to die for and I cannot emphasize this enough, GOOD coffee.

After that whopper of a breakfast we were ready to tackle what remained of the crooked streets of SF. Next on our itinerary was Coit tower, named after Lillian Coit, a true badass of the 19th century. Legend has it that she would dress in trousers that she may be admitted into the gambling dens that were open only to men at the time and ride with fire-men on fire trucks to put out fires.

She had quite the soft corner for the SF fire department and residents claim that it’s the reason why Coit tower looks like a fire hose nozzle (Turns out this was another urban legend).

Talking of the SF fire department, a fireman who was a longtime friend of Mark Twain’s, is said to be the inspiration for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” This place is heaven for pop culture addicts like me.

Coit tower is yet another of those big city phallic monuments. However, the murals within it made the short hike worthwhile. These were representations of life in America in the early 20th century. These include images of the Great Depression, industry and agriculture. There were tiny anti-establishment touches (for the time) peppered through the paintings. Das Capital prominently displayed in the library fresco, class struggles, that sort of thing.

After we had taken our fill of the murals, we set off for Telegraph hill and went down the 800 steps. It made us realize immediately and acutely how terribly out of shape we were for people in their 20s. (Note to self: Get back to cardio and yoga pronto)

Being true-blue city-bred Indians, the abundance of public transport in SF was like manna from the sky. We hopped on and off trams and buses just because we could. After a lazy stroll around Russian and Nob hill and making the mandatory stop at Crooked Street, we decided to head to Castro.

We went to Castro Street mainly for the very quaint, old-fashioned Castro Theater and the very naughty “Hot Cookie.” When we got there, we noticed the rainbow flags that adorned the street lamps and the happy couples walking the street. There was also a very old man with a cane and a fedora and Dumbledorish beard who was totally in the nude and looked predictably vulnerable and so melancholy. After ambling around the street for a bit, people-watching and soaking in the mild drizzle, the agitated rumbling of our bellies alerted us to the hot, buttery, nutty aromas wafting out of the “Hot Cookie.” “Hot Cookie” is famous mainly for their human genitalia shaped cookies (The penis and the Venus). We settled for the more conservative but absolutely divine toffee-peanut butter and chocolate-nut to satiate the pangs of the moment and packed a batch of the anatomical funsies as a take-home treat. A short stop at the café nearby and we were off again, this time to Haight-Ashbury in pursuit of the Painted Ladies.

These were a row of painted Victorian homes that appealed to my very old-fashioned aesthetic. (Translation: Must. See. Painted. Ladies. At. Any. Cost.)  Thus began a quest that yielded so many rows of painted ladies, my head began to spin. All of them were gorgeous but me being me, I had to be sure these were the definitive painted ladies. However, once I found them I wasn’t very sure as to why. The other ladies were just as pretty. My compulsions had really pinched our time and we found ourselves in a taxi to the palace of fine arts that we may be on time for our appointment at the Exploratorium.

Seriously, is this the most fun museum ever? If I were a kid I would be living here. They would have to drag me out kicking and screaming, clawing at the floors. After a good 30 minutes making giant soap bubbles, simulating hurricanes and seeing what our faces looked like if they were perfectly symmetrical, we realized it was time for the tactile dome. Please do visit if you go to SF. You can pretend you are a kid again and no one will judge you for it. The tactile dome is a huge circular dome that you have to navigate using your sense of touch (mostly). It is pitch dark, with tunnels, ladders, slides and caves lined with different kinds of material with different textures. If you are in a very exploratory mood, you can also try and figure out what they have scattered along the path. There was some sort of keyboard, marbles, a toothbrush. They let you go any number of times during your appointment and it’s always fun. The dome can get really over-booked so do sign-up in advance. We had a little man who did it every day and was trying to improve his time. The third time he made his way through, he scrambled out triumphantly,”4 minutes.” He looked impatiently at the fumbling, clumsy adults and walked off with his two adoring friends.

We tore ourselves away before dusk. The Golden Gate Bridge beckoned. A municipal bus dropped us at the base and we walked aimlessly along the sides. The famous San Francisco fog had settled, and draped itself around the orange cables and towers. The fog and the setting sun bathed everything in a dull, pulsating glow. The other-worldliness if the bridges, the faint shimmer of the lights along the deck, it made you realize how San Francisco was indeed 49 square miles surrounded by reality.

Our next stop: The Slanted Door at the Ferry building. We had heard the Vietnamese fusion cuisine at this restaurant was to die for. As it turns out, to die for, kill for, do anything for. We started with spring rolls. They had the most delicate balance of flavours and textures with just the right kick delivered by the accompanying sauces. For the entrée we ordered shaken beef and the wood oven roasted arctic char. The beef was amazing but I am extremely partial to sea food and the arctic char was heaven. We wrapped up with a lemon rice pudding with a side of raspberry preserve. So good. It was late by the time we finished and we took a Rickshaw back to the hotel. The rikshaw wallah bought the custom rikshaws from India and it turns out his wife was an Indian. Even here, across the ocean, reminders of home.

The next day saw us starting off early in the morning for Alcatraz. The island looked deliciously foreboding especially with the lone gull flying across our sight line.

It was quite cold that morning. When we set off from pier 33, a sharp wind and sleety rain added to the atmosphere of foreboding.

Exactly the way I always imagined it would be. Once we got there, we walked across desolate buildings that were once grand halls and offices. The salt from the sea had undermined their structures and what remained were skeletal frames. We made our way to the main prison, walking past the communal showers, grabbed our hearing aids for the tour and let the voices guide our feet through the labyrinth. It was strange and eerie and fascinating.

We saw the field where the prisoners played, the hall where they ate, the library. It was interesting to see how they had made cut-outs in the shape of the different knives in the kitchen so that from a distance the guards could immediately spot if any were missing. We saw the residences of the more famous inmates like the Birdman and Al Capone. We saw where they were held for solitary confinement. It must have been devastating to hear the joyous noises of San Francisco from across the bay, knowing that there was no escape. Some of the men took up knitting to while away the time and others turned to the bible or mysticism.

Many attempts were made to break free. As far as we know, all of them failed. The last attempt, immortalized in the Clint Eastwood film, saw three men escape the island who were never heard from again. It is said that even if they made it out of the prison, there was no way they could have made it across the ice-cold bay on their own.

On our way out of the gift shop we realized that the officials and their families lived on the island with the prisoners. The main prison was at a height of 13 stories but that must have been very little comfort to the young mothers and their children. On our way back, I noticed how the bejeweled bay bridge of the night before looked drab and distant in the slate gray sea. I could not shake the feeling that we had been to an alternate dimension.

The city of San Francisco had sealed off the Embarcadero for the Sunday Streets Festival. I thought this was a very cool initiative. One Sunday a month, a certain section of the city was closed off for traffic and taken over by cyclists, joggers, entertainers, yoga enthusiasts, you name it. Children and parents cycled together in matching outfits, joggers waved and made cheerful raucous sounds as they passed us on the street. There were ice cream vendors and clowns, the skeleton man, those break-dancing men airbrushed in metallic paint. It was bright and sunny and riotous, the drab greyness that accompanied us to Alcatraz had disappeared without a trace.

We didn’t stay for too long however as we had scheduled a trip to the Muir Woods and Sausalito in the afternoon.We were in luck as far as transit was concerned. The bus-driver was a jovial fellow and if there was anything left to see in San Francisco at that point, he made sure we got a peek. He drove us past Grace Cathedral and Ghirardelli square, he pointed us toward the Coppola owned Café Zoetrope, Joe di Maggio’s high school, the place where Steve McQueen’s famous chase sequence was shot. This guy knew his pop trivia and he was a born story-teller.

He told us about his encounter with a wolf on his way to Muir woods. The inflections in his voice, the injection of suspense, and the very elaborate descriptions: he understood the mechanics of a good yarn. When we got to the woods finally, we were ushered into a modest entrance manned by a forest ranger who gave us elaborate instructions about the path. We walked past a clearing and through a fence, ……suddenly we were surrounded, enveloped, dwarfed by nature. The beauty of these trees is to be experienced, not described in words. The quietness and stillness here submerges you in a meditative trance instantly. It is almost physical, the sense of being a continuation of the oldest story ever told. I remembered this passage from “The legends of Khasak.”

Long before the lizards, before the dinosaurs, two spores set out on an incredible journey. They came to a valley bathed in the placid glow of sunset.

“My elder sister,” said the little spore to the bigger spore, “let us see what lies beyond.”

“This valley is green,” replied the bigger spore, “I shall journey no farther.”

“I want to journey,” said the little spore, “I want to discover.” She gazed in wonder at the path before her.

“Will you forget your sister?” asked the bigger spore.

“Never,” said the little spore.

“You will little one, for this is the loveless tale of karma; in it there is only parting and sorrow.”

The little spore journeyed on. The bigger spore stayed back in the valley. Her roots pierced the damp earth and sought the nutrients of death and memory. She sprouted over the earth, green and contented….A girl with silver anklets and eyes prettied with surma came to Chetali’s valley to gather flowers. The Champaka tree stood alone-efflorescent, serene. The flower-gatherer reached out and held down a soft twig to pluck the flowers. As the twig broke the Champaka said, “My little sister, you have forgotten me.”

*                               *                                                 *                                   *                       *

When we were back on the bus, our guide asked us why the forest was so still. It never struck us at the time but there seemed to be no birds. And the absence of birds was apparently because there was no bird-food (insects). I looked it up later, like a good student, and turns out he was right. The tannins in the tree sap act as an insect repellent and the scarcity of insects drove the birds away. There are around 50 species of birds in these woods but they are extremely rare and difficult to spot.

We stopped at the quaint to the power of infinity town of Sausalito. There is just the one main street with a hamburger joint called hamburgers, a fish and chips store called fish and chips and an ice cream store called….you guessed it ice-cream. Nevertheless, like the bard likes to say, what’s in a name? The fish and chips at this place kicks ass! The mini-burgers were a mini-nirvana too.

Our friendly guide packed us off before we were completely buzzed out on that food high. “Look people! This is the place where all the super-rich people live. This is so-and-so’s summer place. That dude paid so many millions for this place etc. etc.” Nothing to get you out of a food high like staring at swanky homes.

After Sausalito, we had a couple of hours remaining in SF. We decided to spend that time on the best restaurant in Chinatown. We took an informal poll of random people on the street, shop-owners and confused grannies. The verdict was near unanimous: R&Gs on Washington square. We got there at rush hour but the wait was not too bad. This place specializes in Hong Kong cuisine and though not as mind-blowing as the food we had thus far, it was a fitting end to our trip: mildly spicy with a hint of sweetness.

In a few hours it was back to reality and lab records. Till then, let me loose myself in this city’s golden embrace.

San Francisco has only one drawback – ’tis hard to leave. (Rudyard Kipling)

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