Pasadena walks

Some of my most exceptional experiences in Los Angeles weren’t in the Santa Monica beach or the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Why even the eye-opening Griffith Observatory wasn’t the best of everything I did.

The one thing I treasure about every city I’ve ever visited is the time I spent walking around the city’s ordinary streets—not just the downtown areas, but also the residential parts of a town, the school district, the supermarket street—the places where locals feel most at home. These places are more than just an everyday thing for people. They’re their lifestyle, their comfort zone, places they prefer to spend time at. That’s what I love about a city—being a part of the locals’ lifestyle even only for a few hours.

Buildings in Pasadena

And so, not wanting to disturb my colleagues’ sightseeing plans, I stepped out onto the street early one morning just to see what’s what.

As I strode along the streets of Pasadena, I came upon architecture both old and new. Stores reaching for the sky barred at the early hours, mere hours away from playing host to the hundreds of folk who’d come in for bread and butter. Coffee shops buzzed with conversations, while vending machines whirred away, energised by the same Joe they poured out.

Political and social opinions drenched passers-by, with clever wordplay on signboards and uncanny shop names, their lights snuffed out, though not for long.

Summer sunlight streamed through the trees, touching buds with their golden rays, awakening birds, bees, and their birches too. The smell of warmth spread through the air as empty roads stretched before me, challenging me, mocking me, to go as far as I can go. I found myself following the light, towards familiar street names, reaching unfamiliar territories, halting for the traffic signs and crossing through broad walks, stepping on sidewalks with plants for aisles, and staring at a Tesla or a Mercedes, a Beetle or a BMW.

I had the whole town of Pasadena for myself.

And as the clock struck eight, like most people in the locality I entered Trader Joe’s. Unlike them, however, I was there for window shopping. On my way back to the hotel I stopped at the coffee shop I’d seen earlier, only now it was overflowing with breakfasters. Carrying my pumpkin pie about 20 minutes later, I walked back to where I stayed, ready to begin a day of work—just like any other person.

And that’s the difference between a tourist and a traveller. We experience far more than what’s on the brochures.

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Drink to me only…

The best thing about dining out—apart from the fancy interior and fine food—is the classy glasses. Add a straw and it makes me feel extra pampered—like a child.

My fellow diner was a colleague I didn’t know much about. We’d travelled together for a work event and had to share a meal one evening. And our choice of beverage, much like us, was so different. It was a nice moment of contrasting liquids.

liquids

Cookie

Even though I’m not much of a sweet tooth I can never pass up the opportunity to devour cookies. At the near-end of my first visit to the US, I realised I’d been there a whole moth without ever trying out Starbucks. So it was with much facepalming that I entered the Starbucks outlet at the Dubai airport. I was in transit from Seattle, and not at all hungry.

But who needs to be hungry to eat cookies?

Starbucks cookie and coffee

Food, food everywhere

During my visit to the US, of the many things that stood out to me as weird, food was a major shock. Although I’m not one to eat in a gluttonous way, I make sure I eat every last morsel of food on my plate even if it means eating beyond my capacity. Food wastage is one of my biggest concerns and I have strong opinions about people who order too much and not eat what they got. And so the sheer amount of food in American restaurants I visited overwhelmed me. Not only were the portion sizes ridiculous but almost none of my fellow-diners managed to finish their meal. Perhaps it’s because American culture is so ingrained in sugary sodas and crunchy mid-meal snacks that no one has the stomach for a proper meal.

Regardless, the first time I was at a restaurant, it pained me to see my friends struggle to finish theirs while I ate my larger-than-necessary serving in the most polite way I could. My friends gave up while I was still eating. We had copious food left on the table and I was preparing myself to see all that food go to trash. Just then the waiter stopped by our table and asked my friends, “Would you like a box?”

The next five minutes threw unfamiliar scenes at me. Our waiter brought us a handful of of carry boxes. Leaving them at the table, he smiled at me while I stared in surprise. One by one, my friends scooped up the food on their plates into the boxes. They were taking the leftovers home.

Wow.

Nothing could’ve prepared me for that unexpected turn of events. Within minutes I had gone from mild irritation, to suppression, to unexpected joy, and then to growing shame.

It was only later that I realised how common it is at restaurants in the US. I felt nonplussed all of a sudden—happy, yes, but confused nonetheless. I felt proud of my American friends for their responsibility and candour. They didn’t care if the food had grown cold. For as long as it’s edible, they ate it.

In stark contrast, where I grew up, almost everyone who doesn’t finish their meal at a restaurant leaves it for the trash can. In all my life, only a handful of times have I seen someone asking the waiter to pack up leftovers. And even then, it was the waiter or the kitchen staff who’d pack it up. Even at home, my society has conditioned people to expect warm, fresh-cooked food three times a day. Left overs and cooking disasters often went to domestic helpers. It’s a disgusting habit, I admit, that my society cultivates along with other home and cultural traits.

That’s why, having grown up seeing and seething at such incidents, I felt a little better at eating out in America than I do at home. I knew that even if I couldn’t finish my serving, I wouldn’t have to choose between forcing myself and throwing away food. A habit we could borrow from our western friends.

To market, to market

I spent my first few hours in Seattle breathing in sea breeze and getting accustomed to the lack of sunshine. Having walked down the waterfront, I halted at the end of the road right in front of the Pike Place Market. Although I’d heard about the iconic market, I had no idea what to expect. From what I’d heard from friends, it’s the ultimate destination for all types of fresh produce and oceanic catch.

As I climbed the stairs, leading to the market, I noticed weird facades and odd-shaped stairwells leading to and from the corners. Set atop hills, the city of Seattle and the market area in particular, have no flat surfaces. Not only did it feel as if I was climbing a hill on top of a hill, but it also felt as though I was riding up and down waves that were the curves of the hills.

Pike Place Market 4

Life teemed in and around the market. It was a Wednesday, and despite it being midday when most people would be in their offices, the market resembled a Sunday carnival. When I reached the top, a little sign welcomed me with information and a map of the market. Trying to be smart about my strategy, I took the elevator all the way to the top floor so I could walk down each floor missing nothing.

When the lift doors opened at the sixth floor, a wave of dim light and buzzing voices greeted me. It was as if I’d taken the lift to a dark movie from the 70s. Facing me was the entrance to a supermarket selling all types of candy, weird foods, and random home items. Wondering what about the market attracted so many eyeballs and footfalls, I began walking around the floor, and then from floor to floor, observing the many stylistic and curious shops.

Each floor I stopped at had a variety of stores. From eerie stores selling Halloween and magic merchandise to a magazine shop selling vintage Playboys and Time magazines from the 40s, to a saloon that invited customers, every corner filled up with something worth staring at or dropping my jaw on. Tibetan artefacts, leather bags, indie artist studios, thrift shops, liquor stores, stationary, carpentry shops, jewellery stores, clothing like t-shirts, hats, ties, and belts, pet care, human care, hair styles, Seattle mementoes, and thousands of other little and large shops lit up as customers thronged.

As if that weren’t overwhelming enough, the pillars of the building itself told stories of the history of the Pike Place Market.

By the time I reached the ground floor, I’d seen so much more than I’d ever thought I’d see in a lifetime. It wasn’t the end, though. The ground covered more shops, most of which were food and perishables. On one corner, farmers from all over Seattle displayed fresh produce, some even handing out sliced fruit for samples. Gorging on the freshest piece of plum, I kept walking along the market, my eyes widening at the sight of fruits and vegetables in quantities and quality like never before. On another corner, young fishermen entertained onlookers by playing catch with 10-pound fish. Even more fishermen posed with their catch sprawled on ice blocks for tourists clicking photos at will.

Pike Place Market 6

A little further away were cafés, bakeries, restaurants, and smaller family owned businesses. They sold products like coffee, tea, chocolate, jams and condiments, and even a noteworthy pepper jelly.

Walking by so many shops, it was only too easy to get lost. Every time I tried to find my way back, I ended up finding something new altogether. That’s how I came upon the world-renowned Gum Wall. Although I knew it was somewhere around the market, I didn’t know how close it was until I ran into the pungent smell of stale gooeyness and deafening roar of a drilling machine. Though it’s been a symbol of love and an icon of the city for many years, the Gum Wall was messy and repulsive when I saw it. For better or worse, it was the first of a scheduled two-day cleaning of the wall. Each year, authorities scrape away old gum, fumigate the wall and its surroundings, and then re-stick the gum to its former glory. It’s become a necessary cleansing ritual because of the thousands of visitors who enter the alley every day to freeze the Gum Wall in their wall frames.

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It was in the same unintentional way that I found the Pike Place Brewery. The moment I stepped in, scores of posters and beer references stunned me. It’s a bar with their own brewery underground. Loud music followed me to every corner of the bar as I scanned the wall shelves for interesting bottles and eye-catching displays.

Drunk by all that I’d seen, I exited the brewery and the market to stuff myself with some homemade cheese.

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I’d had no idea Seattle had so much to show.