New Orleans

I was recently in New Orleans for the first time, and I am not the first person to realize that it is the most culturally interesting and unique city in the United States. I am hard-pressed to find another American city that can lay claim to as diverse a food profile as New Orleans. It has beignets, coffee with chicory, Po-boys, Sazerac, muffuletta sandwiches, creamy pralines, gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, crawfish, and many other things. And let’s not forget its architecture—I loved walking through the leafy streets of the Garden District admiring the imposing mansions, and would never tire of looking at the shuttered and filigree cast iron balconies in the French Quarter, and the shotgun houses and the creole cottages spread through rest of the city. New Orleans is also the birthplace of Jazz and the city of Mardis Gras. It is sadly also the city of Katrina, has been ranked as one of the dirtiest cities in America, and is known as the ‘Murder Capital’ of the United States. Why must beauty and charm come with so much dilapidation, trauma, and neglect?

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New Orleans

The Colors of Autumn

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The Fall season is one of my favorite times of the year. I tend to get excited whenever the seasons change, but the autumn months are undoubtably some of the most pleasant in New England. The beginning of Fall is also a secondary new year for me, given the academic calendar, so with it come all the fresh starts, or at least one’s hopes for them. I love the faint nip in the air, and am completely obsessed with the cozy-socks-warm-drinks version of Fall, and try my best to recreate that fantasy.

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Of course, Fall is so-called because this is when the leaves fall off the deciduous trees that are going bald in preparation for winter. But before they detach, the green leaves take on beautiful and wondrous hues of red, yellow, orange, and pink, as if to compensate for the forthcoming brutality of the black-and-white snow season. And, luckily for me, the fall colors in the New England region of the US are one of the most brilliant in the world.

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View from the French King Bridge

In Massachusetts, the colors are at their peak typically around early to mid October. So, this past weekend, a friend and I decided to drive through the Mohawk Trail to view the fall foliage. The day was unusually cold and windy–in fact, we encountered the first snowflakes of this season in an ironically named town, Florida–but since we (not me!) spent a lot of it driving, it was manageable.

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View from the Bridge of Flowers

We ate a hearty lunch at a lovely place called, Hearty Eats. Given that we were in the Berkshires region, it wasn’t too surprising that the restaurant reminded me a lot of Ithaca, by which I mean that it serves local, organic, vegetarian-friendly, globally influenced food that is free of gluten, dairy, sugar, peanuts, GMOs, or artificial ingredients; has a huge collection of teas; and is located right next to a pottery studio :-). Cheekiness aside, it was great and I highly recommend it!

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At our lunch stop, Hearty Eats, in Shelburne Falls

We only spent about 30 minutes or so at the Mohawk Trail State Park in Charlemont, mostly because the sun was about to set and we wanted to make one more stop on the trail before it got dark. But, if you are interested in looking at Massachusetts’ largest surviving patch of old-growth forest of maples, birch, beech, and ash, this is the place for you. This forest also houses the tallest tree in New England—a 171 feet high white pine—though its exact location is apparently a secret; we were too cold to look for it.

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Mohawk Trail State Forest, Charlemont

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Our last stop on the trail was the Hairpin Turn (it is basically a sharp U-turn with a lookout point) in North Adams. After taking way too many photos of the northern Berkshires, you can park here and get a drink and a bite to eat at the Golden Eagle Restaurant. We had hot toddies, pumpkin pie, and strawberry shortcake, and they were all surprisingly quite good.DSC_5555

View from the Hairpin Turn, North Adams

The entire trip did take an entire day, but it was totally worth the time. I am ready for winter now.

The Colors of Autumn

The Tin Hau Temples of Hong Kong

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Last year I visited Hong Kong, a tiny metropolis with a big personality. It’s the kind of city I like–boisterous, crowded, diverse. The food is excellent and there is no dearth of green spaces, although the humidity can be overwhelming. I am sure I’ll post again about some of these aspects, but today I want to share some photos of the Tin Hau temples.

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These temples are dedicated to the Chinese patron goddess of seafarers, Mazu. Since Hong Kong is a harbor city—in fact, Hong Kong means “fragrant harbor”—it makes sense that it has more than a hundred Tin Hau temples. Similar temples exist in other coastal areas in China and neighboring southeast Asian countries. Apparently, there are around 1,500 Mazu temples in 26 countries. A popular goddess, indeed! Perhaps that’s goddess Mazu below with the two guardian generals known as “Thousand Miles Eye” and “With-the-Wind Ear”?

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One of the striking things about the temples in Hong Kong is how they visually contrast with the surrounding monochromatic city life. It’s such a pleasant surprise to chance upon an old incense-laden courtyard with its red lanterns and turquoise roofs, right in the middle of those ubiquitous skyscrapers.

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Something amazing that I first saw in these Hong Kong temples, and have subsequently noticed elsewhere in southeast Asia, is these huge spirals of incense hanging from the temple roof. Do you see the round plate underneath each spiral? That’s meant to catch the ash as the incense burns away; neat, right? Imagine standing in an old dark cool room with hundreds on these fragrant spirals burning on top of you, enveloping everything in a smoky haze—it’s truly mesmerizing.

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The priests didn’t speak any English, but they very kindly let me peek at everything and take as many photos as I wanted. Here’s a register where they record the donations. It reminded me of the bahi khata registers used by shopkeepers all over India.

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They also have several fortune-telling devices inside the temple, e.g., these wooden nibs, each of which is inscribed with a message; you are supposed to pick one out and then the priest deciphers the message for you! I did try it out, but can’t remember now what the priest told me (with the help of a fellow temple-goer who kindly acted as a translator).

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Most temples I visited had an in-house shop that sold incense, beautifully colored candles, oil, bundles of auspicious paper that is meant to be burnt, and several other items that are needed for various rituals and ceremonies. They are quite similar to the Hindu temples in this regard. I am mostly an atheist, but I do enjoy these paraphernalia of worship.

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But my favorite part, by far, was the walls full of tiny photos—they are shrines of love and memories, where people come to offer flowers and fruits and sweets and drinks to their ancestors as a way to bridge the unfathomable gap that separates the living from the dead. What a wonderful way to remember the ones we knew and miss! These small rectangular pieces with a stick-on photo serve the same purpose as a tombstone does in cultures that bury their dead, giving people a specific place to “visit” and commemorate their departed. When you lose a loved one, what you miss is their physical presence. And something like a public shrine offers you a substitute—a poor one of course—that feels a little more grounded in the face of impermanence.

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So, if you are in Hong Kong and need some respite from the sensory overload of modern life or a break for your tired feet, I highly recommend a contemplative hour in one of the Tin Hau temples. It doesn’t matter if you are religious or not. Really, what could be nicer than sitting on one of these chairs under a lush green tree on a hot afternoon?

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The Tin Hau Temples of Hong Kong

Mishmash

This post is going to be a scatter-plot of thoughts. It’s either that or no post at all, so I figured this is a more desirable outcome for everyone involved :-).

First, a list of some recent likes:

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(Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston)

  • Spinster by Kate Bolick: literary history, contemporary commentary, and useful advice for all the single ladies.
  • Limetown: if you love mysteries and thrillers, check out this new podcast.
  • Blue Tokai Coffee: for single estate arabica coffees from farms across India. Thanks to PJ, I am currently enjoying their Kalladeverapura Estate coffee.
  • An adorable baby prankster! Aren’t children just amazing? Things we take for granted, such as the ability to joke, are in fact a developmental milestone for the little us.
  • The Moon Song.

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(A church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

And, in my weekly dose of grief-talk:

One of the many terrible consequences of losing a family member is the dismantling of “family” as you knew it. Suddenly, you are not sitting on a plane with assigned seating and fixed roles as hosts, pilots, and passengers. Instead, you have crashed and are scattered in the unpredictable ocean, hanging on to the floating bits of broken wings from that erstwhile plane of yours.

Have a good week, everyone! xo

Mishmash

A Turkish Tea

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As some of you know, Boston is my new home. It’s been a couple of years since I moved here, so technically it’s not “new” anymore, but it still feels that way as I’ve spent most of last year in India. What makes a place home for me is always its people. I was lucky to form a close friendship with the wonderful T as soon as I arrived, and my circle of people has slowly expanded since.

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One of the things I’ve done with some regularity during these years is to have tea with a lovely group of women called Ladies Who Tea—of course, we gave ourselves that title :-). More often than not, this now-ritual gathering has taken place at the beautiful home of G, who, besides being an economist and a painter, is an excellent host. Tea at G’s is no light matter. She has so thoroughly spoilt us with the never-ending spread of food, the ever-flowing supply of tea and coffee, and the long-lasting conversations in her colorful home, that I now find other tea ceremonies, such as the one at the Boston Public Library, a bit underwhelming.

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G is Turkish, and that explains a lot of her enthusiasm for tea. And by tea I don’t mean just the drink, but the entire ritual associated with tea-drinking. Turkish culture, like so many others, understands and appreciates the value of communing with a group of friends over slow sips of a hot beverage. Like the Swedish fika and the Bengali adda, Turkish tea is meant to be savored with others, always accompanied by lively conversation and often with delicious food.

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A turkish tea-kettle, çaydanlık, looks like a double-boiler; the lower compartment is used to boil water and the top for brewing concentrated tea. In Turkey, tea means sweet black tea, drunk without milk.

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First, water is boiled in the lower part of the kettle. Next, loose black tea leaves are added to the upper compartment and boiling water is poured over. Then the tea is allowed to steep to the desired concentration in the top half that is placed back on the bottom half. The still-hot lower portion keeps the top kettle from going cold. Gradually, more hot water is transferred from the bottom to the top as tea-drinking reaches full-swing.

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Sugar cubes are optional and non-Turks like me also get away with the addition of milk.

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And that’s about it for a perfect cup of hot Turkish tea. Repeat infinitely, throw in lots of good food, a group of chattering women, a warm Boston afternoon, and you get a special moment worth cherishing forever.

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Thanks, G. Already looking forward to the next one!

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A Turkish Tea

Postcards from Paris

This summer I visited Paris for the first time. It was hot, really hot, like stores-ran-out-of-fans hot; I couldn’t have picked a worse time to visit a city so clearly meant for outdoor adventures. Ideally, this should have led me to the museums and there are plenty of excellent ones around. Instead, I chose sweat, misery, and blisters.

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Despite the littered sidewalks, beauty indeed is the word for Paris. The ornate architecture is lovely, the people effortlessly chic, and the cafés as they should be—boisterous and plentiful.

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I dutifully started my days with an espresso and a croissant. And learnt to always ask for croissant au beurre (made with real butter); the other ordinary kind, croissants ordinaires, really should be banished from all boulangeries and pâtisseries. I would then proceed to board the metro train and arrive at my chosen neighborhood of the day and walk for hours.

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Having read so much about it in other people’s Paris memoirs, one day I decided to treat myself to a lunch picnic in a park. I picked up some bread from Poilâne bakery, cheese from Barthélemy, macarons from Pierre Hermé, and found myself a chair in Jardin du Luxembourg. Sounds nice, right? Unfortunately, however, the heat had melted the macarons out of shape (still delicious though) by the time I got to them, and the garden was less green than I wanted at that particular moment. It would have been much nicer to move this picnic to Bois de Vincennes, Paris’s largest public park-cum-botanical garden that I liked enough to have visited twice during my short stay!

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Another hot evening turned out far better. After two scoops of ice cream (glace) from Berthillon (good, but not as good as all the hype suggested; I preferred Amorino) and a hurried photo in front of Notre Dame, my friend Seb and I walked into a quaint little bookstore called Shakespeare and Company. I would have loved the store even without their table fans and water fountain, though admittedly they were quite welcome on that heat-stricken day. This bookshop was established in 1951 and reflects all that history in its every corner. A good bookstore offers not just books to its patrons but also respite from the outside world. Shakespeare and Company goes one step ahead, and offers free beds to aspiring writers in return for two hours a day of work. Over 20,000 people seem to have slept at the store thus far. How fun!

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That evening ended with a solitary glass of rosé and some potato chips at Café de Flore, a legendary and popular coffeehouse with prominent alumni visitors like Camus and Sartre. After all the walking, it was therapeutic to drink something cold and people-watch. Although the American in me kept wishing for a smoking-free Paris! The cigarettes make it so hard to sit outside and truly relish anything, at least for someone like me who no longer finds smoking as charming and intellectual as I used to during my teenage years.

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The blue hours were no doubt my favorite part of each day, with daylight extending well into night-time. As the heat subsided, everything gleamed in a beautiful mellow cool light, and Paris came alive. It was so magical to see almost everyone out of their homes, sitting in parks or next to the river, doing nothing more than simply sharing that gorgeous summer evening with friends and strangers. And for that alone, I would go back in a heartbeat.

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Bonne journée!

Postcards from Paris

Back?

I think so.

What can I say? I missed this blog! A magazine was nice; perhaps still is. But there is something real and different about the space and freedom a blog provides me with—to go with the flow, to not worry about typos and eternity. And that’s why I would like to be back. To reclaim my corner in the online universe.

A lot has happened since I said goodbye. A magazine, as I said. But other, more important things too. Like the unexpected death of an only and younger sibling. And, let me tell you, it’s hard to go through something like that. One fine day, you are sitting in your apartment, working at your dining table, running some OLS regressions and your phone rings. Your heart skips a beat. This is the stuff of your nightmares. Why would your parents be awake at that hour? You hope it’s a misdial but you know it’s not. She says words that you don’t want to hear; you want her to say something else; but no, that’s impossible; in fact, it is the opposite. Something you never even thought of, not even in the weirdest possible parallel universe, comes true. You scream. And then call and email and cry. Book flight tickets. Go numb.

The next few months reveal the truths you never knew.

And after a little while, you want to blog.

And that’s why, I am back.

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Back?