Saturday, July 07, 2007

Summer in Buffalo -1

(Taste of Buffalo)
(Lake Erie, seen opposite is a Fisherman's pier, not the other side)
(Downtown Buffalo on a summer sunday afternoon)

For a native of the tropics, the enthusiasm shown by the inhabitants of more temperate (or if not temperate, extreme in the opposite sort of sense) for the summer can be difficult to fathom - even bewildering. I was bewildered, to say the least, when the absent minded professor who taught us thermo in my first semester here began the class by bemoaning the end of the summer in Buffalo and delivering a very well informed lecture on the pleasures of the Buffalo summer - ending the lecture with a sort of "Top Ten" countdown of the best summers in America. It was Buffalo v/s San Diego (according to him, no offense) for the top spot and after a bit of wrassling he placed Buffalo on the top of the heap. We were stunned into silence - all of us being first year MS students - and all of us having prepared for a major pounding in the ass in Thermo. Of course, the pounding in the ass was duly delivered - and the first lecture proved to be something of a travesty.

I have since acquired the perspective it requires to truly appreciate summer. When, for a long long winter you have to wake up at 6 in the morning to wade through knee deep snow to attend a CFD class - or to go instruct sleepy and bored students in an underheated lab - you long for the day when you can venture out with just one layer of clothing on your hide. When going into the open need not necessarily involve thoughts of never seeing home again - and when such a day arrives, it comes with a feeling of liberation.

In any case, summer in Buffalo turns out to be a veritable whirlwind of activities. The sleepy and sordid Downtown district of Buffalo that one gets to see in the winter with park benches adorned with questionable characters smoking questionable looking "cigarettes" is replaced with riot of colours, and with happy and chubby families licking away at ice cream cones. In the two weeks that I have been here - since I returned from Home, there have been more things to talk about than in the entire winter.

Lets start with "Thursdays at the Square". A summer concert series in downtown Buffalo. The other wise boring looking Lafayette Square is transformed into a huge concert ground. I was there to hear Joan Osborne sing her tunes with an accompaniment of Will Hoge. The music was good, and the atmosphere and the crowd excellent. I was truly amazed to see that there were in fact such a large number of living beings in Buffalo, having grown used to the generally deserted landscape of the winter. One person of interest was an ancient hippie, long hair, braided beard ...the works... dancing a wierd "trance"y dance to the music, oblivious to the people around him. The thing being on thursdays means that you ll have to extricate yourself from your lab, or whatever, to get there - but I hope to be there again often - and definitely for the Soul Asylum day.

Well, thats that. One of my great, and old, follies is a disproportionate love for bicycling. Summer in Buffalo is an ideal time for Bicyclists, much like the early winters in Pilani used to be. It isnt hot, and it isnt too cold, and theres always a steady breeze coming through from the Lake (Erie). Although I plan to bike a lot more through the summer, I like to believe that I have already made the Grand Daddy of all journeys, a thirty mile bike trip from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. There is a little known but beautiful bike trail, that charts this route. It starts from the extreme south end of Buffalo - and runs alongside the beautiful Lake Erie( which to all practical purposes might as well be a sea - since it has beaches, and you cannot see the other side - hell it even has waves) to begin with and then runs right along side the Niagara river. This is the first stretch of the trip and all along, one can see Canada right on the opposite bank of the river. You could jump in and swim accross , but you'd probably be shot down by a customs heli.... We, living in the Indian Subcontinent, attach a quite a lot of importance to borders, as do all humans. Sitting on a ledge over the Niagara, and looking across, I couldnt see the dot-dash line that was marked so prominently on the map - it just did not exist, but is probably more important than everything that looked back at me. Strange....

The second stretch of the trip, begins after crossing the Niagara into Grand Island, and then then crossing the island, half on roads, and half on a bike trail that runs through woods, and corn fields before crossing (the Niagara) back into US mainland. This was the most trying part of trip, most of it being over arid concrete. I would advise bikers in this area to watch out for wolves ( or were those over eager farm dogs?) and wild deer.

The third and final stretch of the trip, is a trail right along Niagara river again... all along the trail, looking forward - you can see a terrifyingly yawning gap in the horizon, no trees to buildings - nothing...that of course is the falls itself. There were several mo - boats heading in the opposite direction - and if I were on one, I am sure I would be tempted to turn the girl around and head for the yawn...just to see what that feels like. Just follow the river, and you know you have reached the falls, when it suddenly starts looking like Birla Temple - there are Indians everywhere, eating Palak Paneer, laughing boisterously, blinding camera flashes, the best vantage points are resolutely hunted down by the Indians, the whites elbowed out ruthlessly - some of them have come from far away, and this might be their only chance to see the Falls, and they are resolute not to let anybody spoil what they came for, to hell with all. When I saw this little Indian kid and his indulgent father, squeeze right between an American family hogging the best viewing point on the American side of the Falls, breaking up the fort from within and then signaling to their 15 strong family to join them, it positively warmed my heart- we arent too far away from taking over the world...:)

Its called the Seaway Trail (also riverwalk for some of the Bike Only routes) ..learn more about it here.

Also of great interest to a hog like me, is the Taste of Buffalo food festival, the second largest in the Country. Held in front of the majestic Buffalo City Hall, on the Niagara Square and stretching out to some of the streets alongside, it an culinary spectacle. We biked the 7 miles to the place, and were hungry by the time we got off the cycles, we sure as hell werent disappointed. It was all here, 55 restaurants in Buffalo had their stalls in the place - the grey square (of winter), had transformed itself to a riot of colours and music and of course, a myriad of aromas. There was loads to choose from, we began with chicken makhani and basmati rice from "Kebabs and Curries", topped that with a Ginger Garlic chicken from "May Jen Chinese restaurant". A chocolate icecream from Nich Charlaps, and a curried chicken with rice from Carribean Experience, led to the piece de resistance. It was close to shutdown time, and we approached the Tandooris stall for some chicken curries with rice. An Indian family runs the place, and as soon as we approached the booth, an Uncle asked us to give all we had (which he suspected, correctly, wouldnt be too much) and take all the food they had left. So we paid him a ridiculous amount of $3.50 and having thanked him for his generosity, sat down on the square, and eagerly devoured what, to a Grad Student, is the best food of all, and the only kind that wasnt advertised at the Taste of Buffalo - food that is FREE!!! We were there until well past sundown...when the police and the security had started cleaning the place up. I was wearing my Mike Slackenerny (scroll down) Tee, and suspected that He might have something to do with our good luck.

With a baseball game, and Shakespeare in the park lodged in the middle, it has been a hectic three weeks. Of course... I am hoping for more, as the " -1" in the title indicates.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Travelling Home

I was in India for the better part of last month. For all the hullabaloo... India is after all just a 20 hour ride in several air conditioned containers away...not too much, the trip from Pilani to Hyderabad was perhaps more arduous. In any case, I m not too fond of flying, so I just close my eyes and try to convince myself that the terrifying slip n slides that an aeroplane performs in the air are infact the reassuring rockings of a good old train chugging away. The images of bloated and bruised legs a classmate of mine had shown in a presentation on Deep Vein Thrombosis, which I had attended in a half drugged afternoon stupor and had no clue I remembered, suddenly reappeared in all their glorious red n black... and each time they did the dude sitting in front my cramped economy class seat got a juicy kick on his ankle. He was either a sound sleeper or a thorough gentleman...bless his heart.

When the plane landed in New Delhi I sighed, both with with relief and with a certain curious feeling of exhilaration that I ve not felt before. Certainly better than my landing in the US, when I had to use muscles in places I didnt know had muscles not to throw up. I was in one of the queerer seats on an Air India flight then - and instead of the reassuring back of another seat in front of me ( with a pocket holding the Barf Bag) was a rudely nonchalant (or is it nonchalantly rude?) airhostess, facing me but looking listlessly away. She ll never know what a close call it was - she was a whisker away from a tepid(??:)) shower and a stiff dry cleaner's bill. I returned in a Lufthansa - going by AI and returning by LH, I guess that makes me a success eh??...heh.

I visited a few of the cities that I know to varying degrees of familiarity. My first morning in the country was in New Delhi, and the place was nothing like I remembered. Its true that nostalgia makes you forget the dirt and the grime and the paan stains, and if not to forget, to attach a romantic nostalgic tint to them. The tint was brusquely wiped away. It took me a little time to return, in the truest sense - something that is bound to happen when you journey between two worlds that have nothing in common except (varying amounts of) personal freedom. Although I hated (and still do) Kiran Desai's beautifully vitriolic book there are certain things that I agree with - now that I have the perspective. It truly is wonderful to live with your self all in one place, and I feel sorry for the many many people who choose live with half their selves all their lives. If I had the book I would have fished out Desai's words to say this - but I have left it at home. I have also felt, many a time in America, what Desai says in an interview - " It feels as if one will never be able to tell an entire story ever again. There'll be an aspect of living half a life, having only half a story to tell."

In any case by the time I landed at Hyderabad, I had trouble imagining I had been far far away for a whole year - it felt like the vacations from Pilani - when all of us used to get off the train in an excited gaggle - and to my Mum's outward horror ( but I secretly suspect inward rejoicing) the same grimy oily smell emanated from my suitcase as had always done then. Hyderabad hasnt changed much - for a city thats weathered 400 years, another year is just another year. Some of the billboards even had the same adverts as when I had left.

In any case, I drove around the city with a vengeance, with excellent company I may add(:)), proudly clocking a 1000 Kms in a couple of weeks. I was also overjoyed to find that the Hyderabad autowallahs were still the most honest and upright group of public servants in the country - and with their impeccable Hyderabadi hindi and amazingly insightful directions (seeeeedhhe chale jao) are the very embodiment of the Hyderabad I love, and miss. A thought has occurred to me since. Those of you who have lived your lives in many different cities - and are faced with the dilemma of which to call "Home" - think of the city where no diabolical autowallah can take you for a ride - and you have your answer (of course I refer to cities in India - a Western parallel escapes me).

It was on one of the several walks in a reassuringly timely indian dusk, that I caught a glimpse of Christiano Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard walking arm in arm - not a care in the world!! I followed them with a cell phone camera for a good while, all the while apprehensive of accosting them in fear that my long dishevelled hair, incongruous goatee and in general my dubious appearance would remind them of all the warnings of "dirtly old strangers" their mums had plied them with. (My chief childhood fear was the "chheledhhora" - who in my imagination looked then very much like I look now). My most excellent companion was amused at my hesitance and eventually snapped them up while they tried hard to take their pick from a kwality walls freezer (above) .

Calcutta was given a miss this time round...although it is true that I used to call this city home once - and haven't visited it for much longer than whats good for me. Next time round. Although I did (to my amazement more than anyone elses) spend some time listening to Robindro Shongeet, while whiling away time in an endless Hyderabad traffic jam.... maybe theres hope for the Bengali in me.