In Málaga…

Keeping in theme with the tone of the guest post on Seville by Sophie, I thought of my Andalusian adventures that kicked off from Málaga, the Andalusian port city of Spain, that lies across the tip of Africa. It was February and yet the heat, oh it was blistering. Ir ran along the lines of an Indian summer that tends to sear the mind and the soul. The day we landed in Málaga, the city was enveloped in a haze that was a curious shade of jaundice yellow. It is a common feature there in Málaga –  the desert wind, Calima, blows in from the great Sahara Desert bringing with it poor visibility and high temperatures. During the course of the next few days, the haze gradually lifted but the heat, boy it was a stunner.

Now Málaga is the underrated cousin of the Spanish biggies, Madrid and Barcelona, and I do not know why because it has infallible charm. Walking in the shadow of the grandiose Alcazaba, the towering cathedral and the baños (Arab baths), the imagination tends to be overwhelmed by tales of the Moors, that mixed race of Berbers and Arabs who crossed over from North Africa and occupied Andalucia for seven centuries. But ancient Iberians, Phoenicians and the Romans were here too and you see the strange confluence of cultures in its many alleys.

My first impression of Málaga was formed by the sight of the many palms that line one of its main avenues. Those trees bring upon me a wave of nostalgia for things left far behind in the past – hazy memories of the desert city that I was born in. A glorious park, the Parque de la Alameda, was my refuge from the heat of the morning with its green surroundings filled with exotic plants procured from five continents. It was but a paean to man’s potential for creating beauty from zilch. You see, the park was created on reclaimed land.

Sauntering down one of Málaga’s busy streets, I chanced upon an imposing horseshoe archway. The Ataranzas. A market for fresh produce and paella. Ah, now I could not leave it alone, could I?  There is something alluring about the mercados of Spain. Be it in Madrid, Barcelona, Málaga or even a small place like Zaragoza. Is it an old-world charm, you wonder, with vendors and customers exchanging notes over fresh meat, seafood, vegetable and fruits? A plethora of colour for as far as the eye can see beneath the warm lighting of the market hall. My nose led me into a massive hall that was once a shipyard (in Arabic it is Ataranzas) with seven grand arches. Only one of those arches remain and it was the one that had lured me in.

A shipyard in the middle of the city, you might ask dubiously? Things were different till around the 18th century. The sea reached till where I was walking a while ago – on the streets around the present-day market. Once fishermen would have sat along the walls of the former shipyard and trawled the waters for the catch of the day. Apart from housing a shipyard, the Ataranzas had many avataars. Convent, military fort, hospital and subsequently a medical school. So many stories, so many memories, all embedded within its walls. Now only if those walls could speak, the tales that might tumble out.

This was just the start to my extensive rambles around the city, and lest I lull you into a sound sleep, I shall retire till my next post on Málaga.

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The view from the hotel room was made up of water the hue of emerald, the blue shimmering sea beyond the blocks of concrete and then these pretty palm trees.
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The Alcazaba in profile
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Town hall
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A section of the Alcazaba shows up between the old bank and town hall
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Banco de España. If you are a fan of architecture, you will find yourself riveted by its neoclassical look.
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Palacio de la Aduana. The new customs house for the port city.
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Parque de la Alameda
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Parque de la Alameda
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Parque de la Alameda
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A quick change of pace in the busy city
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Ataranzas
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Oh hello there…

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Ataranzas
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The stained glass window in the Ataranzas that are fit to grace a cathedral

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Mattress Hunting in New York City

The business of setting up home is a strange blend of weariness and exhilaration. I find myself oscillating between these two extremes as the process kicks off. On Saturday we made our way to Macy’s at Herald Square. If you are not from this country, you need to know that it is the iconic American departmental store that sets the heart of the locals throbbing (you can call me out on this one if you are not a fan, but what are the chances of that, eh?).

The idea behind spending time at Macy’s was to throw ourselves on mattresses stuffed with all kinds of memory foams, promising firmness in varying degrees. Adi is firm about it being firm, you see.

And throw ourselves we did, Adi with immense pleasure, I with reserve. The idea of laying back, turning around over and over, while pretending to be laying on my own bed when in reality it is within a department store, however hallowed its halls might be, is disconcerting. Never mind the woman on the next mattress in her yellow sundress taking her shoes off to lay on her stomach and change angles as she decides what works for her. Now that is the way you buy a mattress. I know it, okay? But I cannot and shall not fall in line. I have Adi to do it on my behalf.

Soon came the tut-tutting of the saleswoman guiding us through the sacred rituals of choosing The Mattress. This grey-haired matriarchal figure was not in the least like our cordial little Mrs Marple. She cast a gimlet eye upon me, observing, “I’ve been noticing that you are standing around for the most part, while your husband tests mattresses out.”

Adi got his chit of approval and showed me all of his shining teeth. I was the sheepish one.

Then came the deal breaker. The part where all kind of hearts, young and old, stumble and fall. Prices.

Adi’s grin started fading bit by bit. Till it was time to take ourselves out of the vicinity of those rectangular beacons of firmness to think sanely. In almost every situation in life, when you feel overwhelmed, it helps to take a step or a few steps aside, and just let it be.

That is what we did, and the result was that while sauntering down the all-important doyen of avenues, Fifth Avenue, we espied a store that declared itself to be Mattress Firm. ‘Surely a sign’, we thought to ourselves, and entered the store past a bunch of police crowd control barriers, wooden, blue and pretty. A sign that Fifth Avenue had been the venue of a parade earlier on in the day.

An old-world lift whisked us into a massive hall which was a picture of neatness, stacked with rows and columns of mattresses, boxsprings, and more mattresses. A head popped out of the corner accompanied by a grin and a booming voice. “You folks are the first people to step in, so come here quick. Give me a hug! Let’s have a group hug, y’all.”

Javon was his name and he pronounced it as Gio-vaan as he engulfed the two of us in his big arms and gave us a tight hug.

A start with a hugging salesman. Prophetic of good times to come? It was certainly symbiotic for both parties – we got our mattress – and good on Javon, he made a sale without breaking a sweat. He added to the experience by giving us tips. How to catch the best views of NYC while sitting atop rooftop bars, which burgers to chomp on, the best track for running in Central Park, meeting celebrities like Julianne Moore (who had apparently inclined her head to let him know that it was indeed her). He also mentioned his momma who lives in Little Italy in the Bronx.

Now this Italian neighbourhood is not the same as Little Italy of Lower Manhattan. The Bronx one is the original they say, and no, the Italian mafia has not sunk its claws into it because its notoriety means that even the dons took a step back. Which is not to say that there are no mobs around.

On our first day in Jersey City, we had met a burly and chatty cab driver who drove us into Manhattan. He had alluded to the infamous Bronx as he noted, “Two blocks up and down my house in Newark, it is not quite safe. But then I have lived in the Bronx. I know how to take care of myself.”

We shall go one day to the Bronx. Before which I shall arm myself with copious quantities of coffee to steel the nerve.

Back in Javon’s Fifth Avenue hood, two hours passed by in a whirl of nattering. The perfect salesman had done his job sans judgement on my refusal to sink into the mattresses. And we had snagged us a deal that was a neat thousand dollars cheaper than Macy’s. The business of achieving the perfect sleep dealt with, we strolled down Fifth Avenue where we greedily grabbed bags of dark Lindt chocolate and indulged in fashion dilemmas in Adi’s dearest Abercrombie & Fitch store – ‘Why I am in the flagship store!’ he remarked with awe — because he had made it a point to drag me to all of its European locations. This was followed by a long-drawn dinner of delicious Indian fare at Moti Mahal.

The euphoric moment of the day was unplanned – it lay in the transition from daylight to dusk.

New York at night. Those of you who have walked its bedazzled streets by night know this that the city knows how to work it once dusk falls like no other. Oh, the streets were a miasma of activity. Women came out in throngs in lovely dresses, tipsy boys hollered around the streets, pretty young women waited in dimly-lit sidewalk cafes (waiting for their dates?), dogs sat patiently in bicycle trailers as their owners whizzed along the roads, and people spilled onto the streets, diving into drinks and appetizers at cocktail bars. Yellow cabs rushed by us with passengers and Hello Dolly ads as the balmy night air caressed our hair and welcomed us to the city.

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Herald Street in Manhattan
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And that’s not even the tallest building in NY 
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Insights into its colonial past
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By dint of habit and height, every photograph tends to be vertical here
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Remnants of barricades and parades
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The Chrysler Building. A marvellous dream in Art Deco was conceived as the headquarters of the car manufacturer, but it was built by Walter Chrysler, the founder, using his personal funds because he wanted his descendants to inherit it.
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Down glitzy Fifth Avenue where the brands come flying at you, fast and furious.
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Rockefeller center. Artist Jeff Koons has installed a 45-foot high inflatable art installation. Meet the Seated Ballerina. She towers above onlookers and engages with them in conversation to raise awareness for missing children.
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Ornate doors 
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Ahem!
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Life passes by in a blur down Fifth Avenue
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Churches along the way

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Creamy malai tikkas at Moti Mahal
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Butter naan
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…and butter chicken. You have got to work off all that walking around the city with rich food. Importantly, Adi threw a fit about missing Indian food. Do not mess with a hungry husband.
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Delicious rolls to whisk you into the alleys of Calcutta. The original Kati Roll company of New York. It was one of our regular haunts in London.
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Atmospheric cocktail bars rub shoulders with temples
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Leafy city neighbourhoods
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When just like that nostalgia kicks in

The Manhattan Story

His face etched by age, the man in front of Big Wong stood with a faraway look in his face, his hands busy stuffing golden tobacco into the thin stem that stuck out from the side of a wooden bong. That’s not the bongo which would imply an antelope, or on the other end of the spectrum, a drum. But since you can spot our man in the featured photograph with the bong in his hand (behind the potbellied man in the blue tee), you could safely cross out both antelope and drum-shaped possibilities. Instead, you can probably figure out that the bong is a pipe with a filtration device that allows you to smoke anything from tobacco to cannabis. His white apron flecked extensively by red sauce, the man then continued to puff away at the pipe and release curls of smoke as he nodded vigorously to emphasise that he was not partial to getting clicked. Why he was out for a break from his overwrought job of churning out noodles and sauce-laden dishes.

With the clucking of his tongue and the shake of his head, he might as well have mouthed out, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than shooting photographs, so really Horatio, go eat some’.

We did eat a whole lot right after. Steamy bowls of soup with pork dumplings floating in them, a massive plate of noodles topped up with greens and strips of chicken and then the ubiquitous American Chinese dish called General Tso’s Chicken (that often surfaces on pinterest) appeared within minutes of our sitting at the table. All in big portions. We had forgotten the monumental portions of food served up in America. Surrounded by Chinese families going about their bowls with chopsticks and speaking in rapid Chinese, we slurped away.

This was Manhattan. Chinatown, New York. But I could have been easily in an eatery on the streets of Chinatown in Calcutta where the Chinese folks around us would been chattering in Bengali. The common factor was the intensely flavourful food, because that is what makes Chinese such a Friday night comfort food, isn’t it?

Do you put on your PJs after a long day at the end of the week and unwind with delicious Chinese and a frightfully scary movie? I look forward to such evenings when I rustle up Indochinese fare (typically it is about Schezwan dishes concocted with garlic and dried red chillies, moreish Manchurian dishes and chilli dishes which are typically batter fried chicken/fish/ veggies tossed up in spicy sauces). It is a version of Chinese food bequeathed to every Indian by the Han/Hakka community who made their way to Calcutta as far back as the mid 1800s when a businessman called Tong Achi established a sugar mill there.

The migrant Hakka people who belong to the provincial Hakka-speaking provinces of China started working in the sugar mill. In time they turned their skills to work in the tanneries (the stench of which can and will send you into a dead faint) to churn out fashionable and high quality leather goods in British India (working on leather was looked down upon by upper-caste Hindus) and some even operated opium dens. There are faded sepia photographs of rake-thin Chinese men with pipes of opium and punkahs (hand-held bamboo fans) alongside, staring at the lenses with glazed eyes, a sense of detachment from the squalor of their den. I wonder about stories from another era that the Manhattan Chinese have to tell too.

At the same time that some were making their inroads into British India, others chose to make the considerably longer journey to America, lured by stories of the gold rush of the 1840s.

Now New York to Calcutta spells a gigantic leap, but the common thread that runs through them is woven with the warp and weft of stories. Of migration, of immense determination to make it work despite abject circumstances and then these migrants’ renditions of Chinese food that was inevitably tempered by the environment that they found themselves in.

My jaunts have taken me to the Chinatowns in London, Kuala Lumpur, Seattle, Bangkok, Singapore, Port Louis in Mauritius to name some but the way of life of the Manhattan Chinese and the Calcutta Chinese have seeped into the very fabric of their surroundings.

Bringing you back to the streets of Lower Manhattan, the older generation of Chinese turn out to be sticklers for their customs, language and stern expressions. Far removed from the glitziness of the nearby Financial District of New York City, it is a world peopled by old Chinese men and women, bent double with age over walking sticks as they hobble across pavements, stopping once in a while to look askew at passers-by, cordial young bankers sitting inside their chambers and talking about their love for everything modern and coming across as the quintessential New Yorker living in their microcosm, younger store workers with colourful dragon tattoos splayed across their arms and then the antique shop owner with five generations of antiquing in the blood. The streets of Lower Manhattan are entrancing.

This was how we were introduced to the well-known and oft talked about grand American dream – that if you put in hard work why you shall reap the rewards –  all tucked in comfortably within the streets of Chinatown.

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The Georgian-style Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration does stand out in its very obviously Chinese surroundings.
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Sunday masses at the church are held in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

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Chinatown Starbucks
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Heritage and modernity join hands in Starbucks, Chinatown.
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 Colours of Chinatown in Lower Manhattan
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The oldest store in Chinatown, Manhattan, is this antique store called Wing On Wo & Co. Generations of Chinese have been selling porcelain here since the 1920s.
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Those fire escapes fascinated me. Here you see them on Mott Street, which is the nerve centre of Chinatown.
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A Cantonese businessman was the first to arrive in Lower Manhattan and start the process of slowly and surely changing the nature of these streets.
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At Big Wong, we let go. Pork dumplings.
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Noodles laden with pak choi and chicken
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General Tso’s Chicken. A piquant affair.
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Fire escapes and dimsum palaces
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Chinatown leads you into Little Italy. A neighbourhood where once immigrants from Naples and Sicily arrived in the 1800s.
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I was taken in by those fire escapes as you can see.
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Italy nostalgia. 
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A typical NYC sight
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Red chequered table cloths, cannoli, espresso, pizzas, pastas…a feast awaits you in Little Italy. I cannot wait to get back and tuck into some Italian fare.
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We might have started with Chinatown but I leave you here with Little Italy, which goes to show that here is a city that belongs to everybody, and at first glance, seems to be made up of a million dreams and desires.