Reason #713 why I love New York: The Strand

All bookstores are magical treasure troves, but the Strand is pretty much my version of Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders.


Behold, tons of stories just waiting to be read!

At the corner of 12th and Broadway, the Strand has a gigantic collection of rare books, classics with their quintessential leather-bound covers – so solid and indulgent, like books who mean business, alphabetized tall and narrow little stacks you can lose yourself in, all organized by genre and alphabet, an entire collection of cleverly-named candles, witty magnets, mugs, bookmarks, gorgeous journals and totes, humorous socks and other Strand paraphernalia, a banned books section, and a whole row of staff recommendations with detailed notes about how and why this book demands to be read this very minute – and while all those features make the Strand a terrific bookstore, what puts it over the top is the racks and racks of discounted second-hand books lined outside. Starting from as low as 48 cents, these books are wonderfully haphazard and disorganized – and it’s especially thrilling because you never know what you might stumble across. Old copies of Pride and Prejudice crammed against The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, mixed in with German folk tales, stodgily standing next to the rules of Hindi grammar, lined up with parenting help books, just adjacent to the single girl’s guide to NYC. I’ve found old yellowed books with notes inscribed in the margins (literary, as opposed to vandalism – there’s a fine line),  as well as books fresh and heady with that gorgeous new-book smell. The sheer variety delights my heart!

I’ve always felt more at peace with books as opposed to people. Those who saw me growing up can attest to the fact that whenever they came to visit, I’ve always had my nose buried in a book, and will only remove it with the greatest reluctance. I like to think I’ve changed a bit over time, become more of a people person, but maybe it’s just that I compartmentalize better now. Growing up, I’d collect books at stores and book fairs, I’d stack them, organize them by genre, author, frequency of re-reads, and caress them lovingly, read them over and over, trying to keep the pages un-creased and the spine intact (what kind of monster ruins book spines?! Or folds down pages?!). My books should remain as new as they were on the day I bought them.

At some point I realized that I don’t just like books, I need them. What started off as an indulgence has morphed into a necessity, and now I need extra ‘hits’ when I’ve had a bad day. While ‘going to the bookstore’ has always been the norm for when I wanted to celebrate some accomplishment (e.g. finished my annual exams and survived!) right from a young age, and getting books as gifts would make me happy in a way new clothes never did – I eventually figured out that a trip to the bookstore would also cheer me up immensely when I’ve had a hard day. Tired, stressed, lost, heartbroken – all these states of mind have been soothed over the years by a mere couple of hours in a bookstore. I feel at peace – like all the internal and external turmoil is held at bay by the hard covers (or paperbacks) of books. I’d go to a bookstore, pick up a novel, and curl up in a comfy armchair, surrounded by books and bookworms, and the quiet rustle of turning pages – it’s like a warm cocoon that wraps me up cozy and tight, a silvery force field of sorts, deflecting the world and all its troubles away from me. It’s my safe space, and nothing can hurt me while I’m there.

Books are something I take for granted, but whenever I stop and really think about it, I feel incredibly grateful to all the authors around the globe who pick up their pens and pick out the best words to share their stories, based in reality or imagination or both. I’m grateful to my parents for loving books themselves, and encouraging me to read more, explore more, as much as my heart desired. Reading is such an integral part of my identity that it’s hard to imagine a parallel universe in which I didn’t care to read. That universe seems colder, harsher, bleaker. My life is so much brighter, because I can choose to live multiple lives, think from varying perspectives, empathize better, and dream more resplendent dreams, all because of all the stories I get to read.

While e-books have revolutionized the ease of reading, I am determined to have a gigantic collection of physical books you can touch, see and smell (oh, that smell! Did you know that the Strand actually sells scented candles called Aged Page, and Cafe Au Library?). My dream house has a giant room full of books – wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, many lifetimes worth of books. But apart from my very own personal library, I’d love to have books spilling over in other areas of my life, quite literally. I want books piled on my coffee tables, I want window sills stacked high with stray books. Books lining my staircases, books forgotten behind cushions and fleece throws in cozy armchairs. Books snoozing under my pillow, tottering on nightstands,  balancing on the edge of the tub. I want to live in my own little oasis of books, a little world in which my kids can grow up surrounded by witches and wizards, dragons and Shardbearers, boarding schools and midnight feasts, one-legged pirates and snarky Greek demigods. It’s a vividly colorful world, this second world I inhabit, and is a world I will welcome all my descendants into.

Posted in Books, Life, Magic, NYC, Whimsy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Defense of Stories Untold


We are all storytellers. We express ourselves through Instagram pictures, overly long Facebook posts, public blogs, or even just dramatic retellings at extra long lunch breaks with our friends. We love being narrators, in varying degrees of spotlight, and there’s something incredibly gratifying to have our audience connect with our narratives.

But ever so often, consciously or otherwise, we curate and edit our stories – and even if we call ourselves an open book, there are certain chapters we don’t read out loud, certain stories we don’t exchange while sitting around bonfires on beaches at night – because they don’t have conventionally acceptable happy endings, or because they paint us in an unflattering light, instead of as the valiant and righteous protagonists we’d like to be. So we bury these stories deep, never to see the light of day – and if we do decide to share them, we prefer to add filters to our photos, don masks for our one-man shows, and narrate our stories from a different angle. Maybe we’re afraid of being judged too harshly. Maybe the statute of limitations isn’t up yet. Maybe we are still in denial, and haven’t yet accepted this chapter. Maybe we look back and wonder what we were thinking in the first place, or if we were thinking at all. And so these stories, these untold stories, are kept under wraps because they spoil the overall narrative, you see? They don’t fit the image we’ve worked so hard to project. These stories are the chips in our armor, the unnecessary glimpses of flawed and painfully real humanity. It’s vulnerability laid out bare in front of the world, and we don’t want anyone to see it, because we ourselves struggle to reconcile with it. So we tell ourselves that it’s just a fluke, a one-off, and that the true narrative is still unblemished.

But don’t these stories deserve to be told? Aren’t these tales important? Don’t these chapters offer insights into self and values, knee-jerk reactions and instincts, as much as, if not more than the stories widely published? In fact, more than the stories themselves, the reasons why we choose to keep them under wraps is a deeply insightful, if difficult question, which provides a clear path towards exploring our own implicit biases and judgments. What do we feel, and why are we feeling this way? What guilt, shame, pain would we rather not deal with, and pretend doesn’t exist? While this ruminating may not change our public narrative dramatically, it does help the storyteller understand motives and reasoning of their primary protagonist – themselves.

We all love the image of ourselves we have in our heads – the perfect, flawless, whip-smart version of us who never messes up. Who never makes mistakes. Who knows exactly what to say at the right time. Who is kind and thoughtful, but also not a pushover. Who has no hair out of place, no wrinkles in their perfectly ironed clothes, no chinks in their armor. Who’s always more talented, more unstoppable, simply more than who we are in reality.

But you know what? That isn’t who you really are. You are not perfect – instead, you are real. You are real, and flawed, and just figuring out those flaws, and working on what you think warrants change makes you gloriously human. It’s hard, so very hard to remember that vulnerability is not weakness. Your messy emotions, your honest-to-goodness pain, your rawness, your awkwardness – may not be perfect, but they don’t have to be. You don’t have to be. All you have to be is your unique self, flaws and all. So let’s remove those filters. Let’s throw off those masks. Let’s read out those stories, loud and proud. Here’s to being fearless, instead of flawless!

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Error: Printer Not Connected



Have you ever met a printer

That isn’t very temperamental?

All that it’s required to do

Is print out a copy or two!

But of course it isn’t that straightforward

Printers don’t just obey orders.


Error messages blink left and right,

Printer not connected, printer is offline!

Paper problems of every kind:

Prints of faded colors, text too light,

Unwanted spots and horizontal lines!

Then of course we have the dreaded Paper Jam:

Misfed sheets, mysteriously crooked,

Hard to remove, they’re clamped tightly in its jaws,

The printer shall not relinquish!

As for paper sizes – A4 or 3?

Who’s dealing with that? Not me!

If the paper’s fine, go check the ink,

Dried-up cartridges make me flinch.

But the most frustrating issue ever

Is even when you’re assured of ink and paper,

Print jobs neatly lined up in a queue,

No error messages whatsoever.

All looks perfect, but for some unknown reason

The printer refuses to print altogether!

You curse and you kick,

You sigh and roll your eyes,

But Mr. Inkjet here remains blithely oblivious

To all expressions of exasperation!


After all those logical fixes,

Troubleshooting manuals and forums galore,

Here is my (very scientific!) assessment:

Logic can only go so far –

The missing ingredient is human touch!

So hand out a gentle pat or two,

A loving caress, an encouraging word,

Praises, compliments, they’re all very welcome.

See, printers are just like the rest of us:

All they need is love!

So next time, instead of irritation,

Take a deep breath, be kind and patient.

Printer tantrums are best dealt

With firm and loving attention.

Don’t take it for granted,

Don’t ignore it till you need it.

Forge a bond, build a relationship.

As long as you Stay Connected

Your printer will too!

Posted in Battles, Lab, Whimsy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

In the driver’s seat

I don’t drive. While I was growing up in Indore, I’d take my bicycle or my mom’s scooter to travel short distances, and Dad would drive me if I wanted to go beyond a certain radius. When I moved to Pune, I promptly adapted to elbowing my way into overcrowded buses and haggling over ‘meter’ charges with rickshaw-wallas. After moving to the States, I have been lucky enough to live in Manhattan which has a pretty great public transport system. Conveniently, parking is criminally expensive, so nobody expects me to have a car to drive anyway.

If anyone ever asks me if I can drive, I usually say no. That isn’t completely true, but the truthful answer requires a long-winded and rather ridiculous backstory.

I did learn to drive in India. During one of my winter breaks from college, I attended fifteen days of driving classes in Indore. I was taught by a female retired police officer, who was proportioned like Madame Maxime and behaved like Mad-Eye Moody. She was brisk and efficient, but wouldn’t let me rest my feet against the brake or accelerator unless I kicked off my shoes first. She assumed all women wear wedges and heels while driving, and claimed that that wouldn’t give me a real feel of just how much pressure I’d have to apply for the car to respond. So now every time I get into the driver’s seat, my first few moves are to pull my seat up close to the dashboard (otherwise I’m this short-legged child whose feet dangle and don’t touch the pedals), adjust the mirrors, and then kick off my shoes before putting on my seat belt.

Madame Maxime’s next tactic was to drive me right into the middle of the crowded, traffic rule-flouting city, and then plop me in the driver’s seat. Me, an utter novice, who wasn’t mentally prepared to drive before I’d learnt the exact name and function of every single thingamajig of the car. But nope, I had to learn by diving into the deep end – so middle of the city it was. The parts of the city where there isn’t unidirectional or bidirectional flow of traffic, but pretty much two-, three-, and four-wheelers driving in whichever direction they pleased, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, amidst the ear-splitting din of annoyingly-pitched truck horns. While this experience taught me how to change gears instantly, and swerve to avoid stray cows plodding along the street, potholes, idiotic cyclists, and dogs who streak past the front of my car at the last possible second – it’s still a rather limiting skill set. Sure, I am fairly confident I will never crash into anyone, I have relatively fast reflexes, and have learnt to expect everything short of a UFO landing on the road in front of me. But on the other hand, I freak out the moment I have to go above third gear, simply because I have never had to. I can be the safest driver on the planet, but am probably also the slowest. I’m quite unsettled by empty roads and highways – what, am I expected to drive really fast, and own the whole road? That’s too much open space. Where is all the traffic?!

The third thing I learnt in driving school was how to obey orders instantly and without question. If Madame Maxime said stop, I slammed on the brakes with all my might. If she said switch to second gear, I did it instantly, before comprehending why. If she said I have to lean on the horn and press for several deafening seconds, that is exactly what I would do. While all this worked well for us in those two weeks, I never learnt how to drive without instruction. So the first time I drove without her by my side, it was incredibly unnerving. All of a sudden, I was expected to make all these decisions on my own. When exactly do I switch to second gear? How much do I slow down on my turns? Nobody else was looking out to estimate the size of the pothole coming up, and deciding if my wheel track was significantly wider than the pothole diameter, so I could safely drive over it instead of swerving to avoid it. That’s a lot of pressure, I tell you! What if I decide wrong? What if I switch to third gear, without anticipating giant orange construction barrels which suddenly materialize in front of me, and I panic and have to downshift to first, accidentally stalling the car in the process? (This happened while I was trying to impress my dad with my new-found driving skills in his new car. He was not impressed.)

After finishing up driving school, I got my driver’s license. There was a written multiple choice test, which I aced, because if there’s one thing I can do well, it’s prepping for theoretical exams. There was no actual driving test, which is quite alarming now that I think about it. Is this how all Indian driving licenses are handed out? Because that might explain a lot.

I haven’t learnt how to drive in the States yet, and have no immediate plans to do so. I’ve gotten by quite nicely in the last four years, and the whole process of buying or renting a car, getting a teacher, learning to drive in Manhattan traffic, and relearning all my driving coordinates (the left side of the road is NOT the right side to drive in this country!) seems a lot more hassle than it’s worth. I might do it at some point, once I find a reason more convincing than having to answer – ‘wait, you can’t drive?!’

So you see, the honest answer to that is yes, I can. I CAN drive a car, you know, just as long as I’m barefoot, it’s a manual, someone is barking rapid-fire instructions at me, and I’m allowed to drive on the left side of the road. I can totally drive! 😛 But for mine and everyone else’s sake, I’d really rather not!

Posted in Adventures, Home | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Travel Diaries: Woes of Venice

What comes to mind when you think of Venice?

If you’re anything like me, you picture gorgeous gondolas all decked up, floating in romantic water canals. You probably imagine picturesque bridges spanning the canals, with quirky cobbled streets, narrow little alleyways and breathtaking views at the Piazza San Marco. The Venice in your mind is probably warm and sunlit, scented with the mouthwatering aroma of pizza. You imagine green-blue waters, creamy white bridges topped by a bright blue sky. Such a serene picture …

Now, blot out the sun. Add in an everlasting, uniformly dense fog, decreasing visibility to maybe 5 feet. Paint the skies a stormy grey. Add some blustering winds which make the gondolas on the dock creak ominously on grey-black waves, straining to escape from their restraints, as if they were wild animals pulling on their leashes to skewer unsuspecting souls with their pointy spear-like ends. Oh, and turn down the temperature to about zero degrees Celsius. This is the Venice I walked into.

My week-long Euro trip had just kicked off with a bright cheerful day in Lisbon. Venice was the second stop, and one I’d been eagerly looking forward to. But the moment I got off at the airplane, I looked around in dismay. Venice was glum and broody, bordering on creepy, and just plain inconvenient. After getting off the water taxi with three heavy bags each, and facing a supposedly short walk to our hostel, Swetha and I rapidly discovered that the beautiful cobbled streets we had so admired were rather hard to roll our strolley bags on. Instead of moving smoothly, the bags encountered renewed resistance at each ‘cobble’, leading to an annoying thunk! thunk! thunk! every second, sounding incredibly loud in the deserted streets. There were no people around, the idea of cabs was laughable, and while I was sweating with exertion inside my winter coat, my poor bare hands were getting increasingly chapped and numb from the icy cold. Of course, the cobbled streets turned out to be the easier part of the journey – because that is when I faced the bane of my entire trip: the bridges.

You know how bridges are supposed to be? Smooth inclined ramps. Not steps. It’s a bridge, what if you want to roll something along it? How do you use wheelchairs on it, and in this case, heavy strolley bags?


A quick illustration of Venetian bridges.

In this case, I had to physically pull each bag in turn, walking backwards on the steps, and yanking the bag up, step by step – using both hands and all of my not-so-formidable strength – there was no way I could carry bags in the one-handed conventional way (To put my task in perspective, I had major difficulties in just pulling this bag off the conveyor belt at the airport. This is the problem with travelling to India – you can never travel light!). So it took me a good twenty minutes to drag my bags across each bridge, followed by a few more minutes trying to catch my breath and get back some feeling in my numb fingers, followed by…yup, thunking my bags across cobbled streets again. So glamorous, I tell you! Of course I hadn’t packed my gloves in any accessible compartment of my bags – so to add to the ridiculous sight of bumping my bag across the annoying staircase of a bridge, I was now also sporting orange-and-white ankle socks on my hands to prevent frostbite. It should be noted that these are the most respectable socks in my colorful arsenal.

After our 15-minute walk to the hostel (as predicted by Google while connected to the airport WiFi) morphed into a painfully long stretch of two hours, we were already behind schedule. We dropped off our bags with infinite relief, washed up and left to go exploring, since it was almost time for the sun to set and the day to get darker still. We headed out in the icy cold, armed with nothing but a giant paper map – only to promptly get lost in the eerie fog. It’s not easy to navigate when the streets aren’t labelled, the alleys are about 4 feet across, forcing you to walk single file only, and visibility is minuscule. Adding to the surreal nature of this walk was the fact that there were no people in eyesight or earshot. On occasion, a ray of light would cut through the fog – lighting from tiny shops lining the alleys. Normally I’d be thankful for any form of brightness, but all that these lights illuminated were storefronts with racks and racks of grotesque plague masks put on display.


I didn’t actually have the guts to take pictures of these masks – this is an image I found on Google.


We eventually found the closest pier, and got tickets to board the water taxi. I was exceptionally relieved to see other people, as this made the place feel less of a surreal ghost town. The water ride was still rather unnerving though – somehow people were really quiet, and all you could see was the glow of distant lights cutting through the fog, and the ominous creaking of gondolas parked along the waterfront which was audible even over the thrum of the water taxi. Black waves were lapping against the water taxi, I was still shivering, and my phone wasn’t working because of my rash choice to do this whole trip ‘old school’, meaning no phone signal or mobile data – desperately missing civilization by now. This is normally that part of the horror movie when I’m yelling at the stupid protagonist to get out of there NOW!


This is approximately when I realized I preferred my adventures in book format only.

And finally, we reached the famous Piazza San Marco. I’d heard a lot about this place – how Napoleon supposedly called it “the drawing room of Europe”, the glorious Doge’s Palace full of paintings on the ceilings, the giant courtyard outside, which is known to flood every now and then (probably not very fun to wade in, but so cool to Instagram!). I’d seen photos of the Campanile, and read about how it collapsed and had to be rebuilt in 1902. And the Bridge of Sighs! This was THE place to be.

And lo and behold! The Piazza I saw resembled some sort of sepulchral ghostly land. Like the grey area between life and death – a perfect location for a seance! This only served to increase my shivering, although I adamantly blamed it on the cold. This was absolutely surreal, how did I end up here? Why wasn’t I home in bed instead? I looked around in vain for the Campanile – it was supposed to be a significantly large tower at one end of the courtyard, but was nowhere to be seen. Swetha pointed out one part of the sky  which seemed blacker than the rest, so we assumed there was a man-made structure high up there blocking out the light, and so walked resolutely in that direction. We bumped into the low railing around the Campanile before we looked up and saw a dark structure looming above us – ah, so there it was! By this point we were laughing helplessly – this day was really not going as planned.


Piazza San Marco. Not quite what I was expecting.

After getting lost a bunch of times on the way back, we finally managed to get back to the hostel, only to find that their heating was minimal. So I pretty much had to climb into bed wearing all my winter gear, and curl up into whatever it was that passed for a blanket. Venice was NOT fun. I should have just stayed in Lisbon …

Much to my relief, day 2 turned out to be significantly less foggy. It also helped that by now I knew what to expect, and was better prepared for it, both mentally and with my gloves finally replacing the orange-and-white socks. Being able to see because of the daylight definitely raised my spirits. The narrow alleyways, which had unnerved me so the night before, now seemed delightfully quaint.


Where the streets have no (or barely legible) names!

After having a lovely breakfast with deliciously viscous hot chocolate, Swetha and I decided to return to the Piazza again for a do-over. This time it was a lot easier to navigate our way to the pier, the water looked more green-grey than grey, and we had no luggage to carry. And yes, the courtyard looked so much better in the daylight!


Piazza San Marco, Take 2.

We wandered around the Doge’s palace, admiring the architecture outside, and all the gorgeous paintings inside. There were panels and panels of paintings, stretched out across the walls in hall after hall, by the likes of Titian, Bellini, and Carpaccio. Intricate paintings across the ceilings, some painted figures life-like enough to be mistaken for statues.


This particular painting inspired a new game for Swetha and I : Painting or Statue? We were wrong more often than we’d like.


Tintoretto’s Paradise covering the entire wall in the Hall of the Great Council. It is one of the world’s largest oil paintings!


A twenty-four-hour clock!

After checking out the opulence of the Palace, we then proceeded towards the other extreme – the prisons. We walked through dark claustrophobic cells, through the famous Bridge of Sighs. This beautiful arch bridge connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the prisons. It was named by Lord Byron, for the sighs of prisoners who would get their final glimpse of Venice through the stone grills of the enclosed bridge.


The Bridge of Sighs from outside. So beautiful yet so grim at the same time!


The (last?) glimpse of Venice from inside the Bridge of Sighs. Glad I didn’t commit any crimes here!

The one thing I made a point to experience in every city during my Euro trip was to climb to a vantage point of the city to look out at the view. I managed to do that in Venice on the second day when I could finally see the Campanile in Piazza San Marco and climb all the way to the bell at the top.


Campanile di San Marco. Galileo supposedly demonstrated his telescope to the Doge of Venice here in 1609!

Here are multiple views of Venice from upon the Campanile. It’s pretty imposing, even in the (relatively cleared-up) fog.

Swetha and I ended up having a lovely dinner by the Rialto bridge, with outdoor seating, a heater right above us so we wouldn’t freeze, and a view of the pretty lights along the Grand Canal. This authentic Italian meal warmed me up to Venice like nothing else. The jarful of tiramisu at the end was pretty much heaven in a jar. Relaxed and happy – by this point I almost understood why Venice is hyped up so much.


Mmmmm! 🙂 Tiramisu is probably the ONLY non-chocolate-based dessert I like.



The view of the Grand Canal from the Rialto bridge! We had dinner under the red-topped canopy on the lower right.

The next morning, we packed up all our luggage, and headed over to the train station to go to Florence. By this point we had mapped out the path with the least number of bridges for luggage-dragging (four bridges), the amount of time it took to lug our bags across each bridge (ten minutes), which pier to get the water taxi from, which pier to get off at closest to the train station – so it was a very coordinated and well-executed journey. While the first day in Venice had us stumped, by the end we’d managed to hack it! We got to the station in good time, and feasted on authentic gelato from Venchi, and I was grinning from ear to ear. Venice wasn’t so bad after all!

So what’s the conclusion – would I recommend Venice to anyone? I definitely had a pretty bad first day, but I do believe that judging Venice in the winter fog is tantamount to judging NYC by Times Square at New Year’s Eve – which is plain stupid. So yes, you should definitely go to Venice – but go in the summer. Go when it’s warm, and the sun stays out past 4 p.m. Don’t carry more than a backpack. Go for a day trip and don’t stay overnight. And definitely eat all the food: the bruschetta, the pasta and dollops of tiramisu. Totally worth it!

Posted in Adventures, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Travel Diaries: A Glimpse of Lisbon

I went on my first ever trip to Europe last December. It was one of the coolest things I have done in my adult life – just travelling with a friend to a whole new continent. When Swetha asked me if I wanted to fly back from New York  to India together, she suggested a week-long ‘layover’ somewhere in Europe. We pretty much picked out the exact location in Europe based on the timing and price of flights – and after extensive Skype sessions, mapped out an itinerary which ended up being NY – Lisbon – Venice – Florence – Rome – New Delhi. Italy was our main destination, but we found a flight that had a legitimate layover in Lisbon for 22 hours, which felt like a pretty great bonus.

I was wildly excited about this trip, but it was hard to pinpoint what exactly I was looking for. Apart from the general excitement of seeing a new place and culture, I also wanted the independence of just finding my own way around in completely new surroundings. Which is why we shunned all sorts of guided tours, agreed to carry phones which were quite useless without public WiFi, and made our own itineraries, a lot of which involved ‘walking around the streets to soak in the place’. We went as old-school as possible: paper maps with x marking the spots, multiple print-outs, handwritten notes to account for our finances. Our schedules for all of Italy were completely packed to squeeze in everything we both wanted to do, but since Lisbon was our little treat, we agreed to keep it light and flexible.

The very first sight which greeted my eyes the moment I stepped out of Lisbon airport was a gorgeous stretch of ocean. Palm trees, with their fronds gently waving in the breeze. It looked sunny, warm and welcoming – which is just how I like my Decembers to be!


Nothing signifies ‘summer vacation’ like palm trees!


We exchanged some currency and took a bus over to our hostel, only to be greeted by some very welcoming folk, who chattered away with us, pointed out some of the local attractions and stored our bags. They were very excited indeed to hear I was from Goa – which I wasn’t sure how to feel about. Didn’t the Portuguese rule over Goa for some 450 years, and shouldn’t I be slightly resentful at this sweeping familiarity of their feelings? Oh well. I decided to see it as a useful talking point – and believe me, there were SO many similarities to Goa! The architecture, the beaches, the slanted roofs! The climate, the insistence on having fish with every meal! After we shed all our bulky winter layers (which had proven so useful just a day ago in NY), we walked over to the Commercial Square, wandered around, took photos, and pored over the menus of every restaurant in the Square before we settled on a meal.

After a long leisurely lunch, Swetha and I decided to go see a place called the Belem Tower which everyone kept gushing about. It’s right by the coast, they said. You can’t miss it, they said. We took a bus and dutifully got off at the stop called Belem, which was apparently the wrong stop for Belem Tower. This led to a comical forty five minutes of being misdirected and rerouted by every person we stopped to ask directions from (“it’s a 100 meters to the left”, followed immediately by “just walk straight on this road for 700 meters, the Tower should be on your right”). Life without Google Maps is hard, you guys! But on the plus side, yay for the metric system! At some point we saw a couple of guards who were dressed up like the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace, and timidly went up to them to ask for directions. They stoically refused to break character and looked straight through us. It was rather unnerving, we weren’t sure whether to turn our backs and sprint away, or walk backwards verrrry slowly (they had these scary-looking rifles, and didn’t blink AT ALL). A normally dressed guard witnessed this one-sided exchange and taking pity on us, pointed us in a third direction. Our gratitude proved to be premature, as we ended up reaching near the sea, but with no tower in sight. It HAD to be on the coast, and our view was unencumbered for miles … but believe me, there was no tower in sight! I began to think it was a mirage – only existing in people’s minds. At one point we saw Portugal’s Ponte 25 de Abril bridge, which was disorientingly similar to the Golden Gate Bridge from the continent we’d just left. Eventually we decided that even if we did find the tower, we’d probably be denied entry because it was nearing their closing time. We somehow ended up at the Jeronimos Monastery, which I’d also looked up before, and decided to act as if it was our destination all along.

But the moment we walked into the Monastery, it stopped being a consolation prize – it was incredibly beautiful. The stonework, the design, the intricate marble carvings were stunning. We found ourselves in a courtyard which felt right out of a story book. This huge grassy green expanse with a little fountain in the center, surrounded by four tall walls of marble, and above, the bluest of skies. It was almost deserted – we had the place to ourselves. We chatted and took photos for the first five minutes – but it was so peaceful that we fell silent. You know those moments that just take your breath away, the moments where you forget everything else, and all you want to do is savor it? The kind of moments you are so busy experiencing, that documentation becomes unimportant? Because all you care about is the here and now. You don’t want to be anywhere else. You don’t miss anyone or anything, because there’s no other place you’d rather be. This … right here, is everything you want right now. And in that moment as I lay stretched out on my back in the grassy courtyard, looking up at the clouds skidding past the pointy towers of the monastery – I realized that this kind of peace and quiet was what I was looking for all along.


The courtyard at Jeronimos Monastery, photographed before I went into philosophical musings


Much later in the evening, we hunted down a McDonald’s for free WiFi, called an Uber and drove through multiple sparkling streets to the Santa Justa lift. This is a grand and slightly eerie antique-looking elevator which takes you up to a viewing platform where you can look over miles and miles of the city. This turned out to be a common theme during the rest of the trip – for every city we visited, I made it a point to climb up to an accessible lookout point to get a bird’s-eye view. The view from Santa Justa at night was glorious – you could see slanted brick-red rooftops all around below you, interspersed with streets and marketplaces decorated with streams of Christmas lights and decorations. On one side, the glittering black sea stretched out to meet the sky, and on the other, an old castle upon a hill. By this time in the evening, stars were glinting overhead, the wind was whistling in my ears and doing its best to toss my curls into further disarray, and it felt like we were literally on top of the world.


The Elevador de Santa Justa, with a viewing platform at the top


The rest of the evening whizzed past in a series of cheerful events – Swetha and I wandered into a bakery and inquired about all the different kinds of sweets and their fillings. The guy behind the counter was kind enough to describe each of the pastries, and after we ordered two to go, he very sweetly added three more, and refused to let us pay. We had dinner outside a lovely restaurant where the waiter brought us Ginja, a traditional Portuguese drink, along with Pastel de nata, a traditional Portuguese egg tart custard pastry served with cinnamon – which immediately won a spot on my list of all-time favorite foods.


I’m going to find myself some of these in NYC!


After a late stroll along the beach, we hung around in Commercial Square once more. We ended up walking up to and into an artificial 100 feet tall Christmas tree, which looked rather silly from the outside (it was disturbingly symmetric), but was stunning from the inside. It was quite wide at the base and had a doorway on the side, sort of like going inside a very tall tent. I stood at the exact center of the tree and looked straight up – and instantly felt dizzy. It was like looking into some sort of twinkling red, green and white tunnel which was shooting straight upwards with no discernible ending. If you stood in the center and started twirling, looking straight into that tunnel, it almost felt like tumbling inside some giant kaleidoscope of sound and color. It was hypnotizing – I had to be physically dragged out of there.


The Christmas tree from outside …


… and inside. Looking up, up, up the vertical tunnel!


22 hours in Lisbon weren’t enough – it deserves a lot more time. Before I knew it, it was 6 a.m. and time for us to leave for our flight to Venice. Since our bags were already checked in straight to Venice, all we did was stroll into the airport with our carry-ons and walk all the way to the gate. Security was surprisingly lax – we got almost all the way to the boarding gates before anyone stopped us to see any documents or to scan our bags. It totally fit in with the whole laid-back attitude of the people, the whole sushegaad lifestyle my Goan relatives have introduced me to. You know all those dramatic movies in which someone is running through an airport to declaim their undying love at the last minute? Well, Lisbon airport seems like the easiest spot where you can get away with it, no problem whatsoever. In fact, no need to run, just casually saunter in and you’ll be fine.

Will I return to Lisbon? Probably. It seems like the kind of place I’d like to settle down in eventually. I’d live in a little house with a red roof and a porch, sit and read at the beach every evening, finally hunt down the elusive Belem Tower, and devour pasteis de nata by the dozen. Throw in the year-round warm weather, and it’s a deal! Sushegaad indeed!

Posted in Adventures, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Of tooth troubles and darling daughters

Love isn’t what you say, it’s what you do. My dad is not the most expressive person – he won’t be the parent who calls me every night so I can prattle on about all my doings, but he will be the person who asks my mom about those said doings on a daily basis without fail, and is always updated on all my activities, mundane or otherwise. My dad has more interesting ways of showing how much he cares.

When I was about seven, my baby teeth started falling out. I was exceptionally proud of this fact, because I was the first kid in my class to start losing my baby teeth and getting my permanent ones. Those were also the days when kids used to excitedly show off their new erasers, pencils, pencil boxes and assorted paraphernalia in school. I was quite keen to start a new trend by showing off my teeth – not just the resulting gap in my mouth, but the actual tooth in a box.  Anyway, my front lower tooth had been loose for about a week, and while I couldn’t wait for it to fall off, I was much too scared of potential pain and blood. I refused to physically yank it out, or tie it with a string to a door so it could be pulled out Tom Sawyer style (much to my regret – that does seem like a pretty cool technique). After a whole week of nursing my tooth so carefully that not a crumb of food could come close, one fine afternoon while I was rinsing out my mouth over the sink, the tooth finally detached and fell off. Except of course it got washed down the sink and swirled right out of sight before my horrified eyes.

Seven-year-old me stood frozen for a few seconds, then turned around and dashed over to my parents in a flood of tears. I don’t remember what all they said to console me, because clearly none of it was effective. I’m sure I was told that I had 19 other teeth that would fall out, ergo 19 more chances to show off to all my classmates and teachers (also, in retrospect, which teacher actually wants to see a tooth in a box?!). While I continued crying and hiccuping, my mother redoubled her efforts to console me, and my dad eventually walked away. This was not a surprising turn of events, even at that age, because my mom has always had a lot more patience with my more irrational moods and demands, while my dad is prone to offer a slew of logical solutions to my problem, or even worse, laugh – such a clever strategy; what a surprise that I didn’t immediately wipe my eyes and smile a watery smile of gratitude at being jolted back into rationality.

Anyway, after my mom had administered enough hugs and sympathy, the waterworks did relent a bit. This is when I became aware of distant bangs and clangs, and mom and I went to investigate. There was my dad, with his toolbox, taking apart the pipes under the sink into which my tooth has vanished. He calmly dismantled the whole thing, and I kid you not, he went in and retrieved my lost tooth. After the hullabaloo subsided, the tooth was washed quite thoroughly, put in a box and shown off at school – minus the backstory of its eventful journey. Quite a satisfactory ending!

At that time, this event did not strike me as anything out of the ordinary: I was upset, I wanted something, and so my dad got it for me. Of course he did. But now when I look back, I am shocked, grossed out, but mostly filled with awe. Because you see, that is what love is. It’s not just words, chocolates and flowers – it’s not just the cliches I read about in my stash of romance novels. This is the one true example of love that comes to mind – doing something icky and unnecessary, just to make your kid happy. It’s the kind of love I have always got from my dad: solid and reliable, the sort of love you can rely on unconditionally. It doesn’t matter that we don’t talk every day, it doesn’t matter that he isn’t my primary sounding board, it doesn’t matter that we don’t express our feelings to each other on a regular basis – because whenever I have actually needed anything, he’s always there for me,  he’s got my back and I know he always will. And that is what unconditional love is.

While my dad’s medium is actions rather than words, I choose the written word to express all my sentiments, both simple or convoluted, heartfelt or plain cheesy. I would much rather spell out my feelings – because mild embarrassment and potential non-reciprocation is something I can live with, and words unsaid I cannot. So while I know it, and he knows it, and anyone who knows us knows it, I still want to say it out loud and clear … and not on any special occasion, birthday or anniversary, I want to say it just because: I love you, Papa! My first hero, my forever hero.

Posted in Home, Love | Tagged , , | Leave a comment