Zilker

I hate stereotyping. As a victim of it myself, I try and always avoid pushing others into pre-built notions of what’s right and what isn’t. 

But with Texas, I couldn’t help it. 

When I learnt I’d be visiting Austin, Texas for a couple of weeks, I was expecting vast mounds of sand, and cowboy boots on every other street. Yet in the most spectacular way possible, the city proved me wrong. On my first day there, a colleague was gracious to take me along as he ran errands. Aside from being a hot city, Austin, I observed is a rather small town. With the river flowing through the city, it was quite easy for me to figure out what’s where.

Zilker Metropolitan Park
Zilker Metropolitan Park

For the love of public transportation, I chose to use the Austin bus service to explore the city. From where I stayed, the bus stop was a ten-minute walk away. Waiting for the bus wasn’t too bad—In no longer than five minutes, a bus trudged my way. Perching myself on a seat by the window, I gawked throughout that short ride at the city that was more green than I’d ever imagined it’d be. Trees and bushes lined the pavements, punctured on occasion by shops and buildings. About 20 minutes of slow riding later, I had to transfer to another route that’d take me to where I’d been wanting to visit first since I first heard about it from colleagues: Zilker Park and Botanical Garden. As soon as they heard I enjoyed parks and open green spaces, many people, from friends and colleagues, to even the passenger next to me in the flight, recommended the Zilker park. I couldn’t pass the opportunity.

And so I waited. With bated breath and mounting excitement, I stood at the bus stop for ten minutes. No sign of a bus. According to my online resources, the bus showed no signs of a delay. I was beginning to get restless when another passenger, travelling on the same route, came along sulking. Within two minutes of conversing with him, I realised the bus schedules are often a mess. Although most of them arrive on time, they aren’t as frequent as you’d like. Having waited for over 20 minutes, I gave up, and so did my co-passenger. It wasn’t a long walk, but it wasn’t a short one either. To make up for the disappointment, however, it was scenic and rather enjoyable.

Zilker Metropolitan Park
Casual Sunday at the Zilker Metropolitan Park

About 40 minutes later, a wave of green valley hit my eyes hard. Zilker Park is a 351-acre expanse of greenery like I’d never seen before. And the people of Austin knew its value, for there were families picnicking, owners change their dogs, young students practising soccer, and some adventurous kids climbing the rocks. II had a little adventure myself as a dog bounded at me with gnawing teeth. Within seconds, though, I knew he meant no harm and I was petting him as his owners walked over to apologise. 

It was a Sunday, a day spent well for all them. And as I observed them go about their life, I understood how much they’ve incorporated nature in their livelihood. In their opinion, there couldn’t be a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and having seen families spend entire days whiling away on television, I would’t ever contend the Austin way of life.

Turning away from all that was difficult, but something else promised to be a much greater experience. 

Zilker Botanical Garden

Zilker Botanical Garden
Zilker Botanical Garden

And what an experience that was.

Much like The Washington Park in Portland, this garden contains smaller sects, like a rose garden, Japanese Gardens, desert plants, waterfalls, streams, and a prehistoric garden. Texas Historical Commission has established exhibits too, a model of a classroom, as well as a Swedish log cabin and blacksmith shop to depict the lifestyle of the first Swedes of Texas. There’re also live demonstrations of the recycling process, the workings of solar energy, and a spiral garden. 

It’s these little things that depict people’s dedication towards making a cleaner environment. And as I walked into a large clearing with a massive spade thrust into the earth with a social message on it, I knew that it was all more than just talk. The population of Austin is taking steady steps, small though they are, to leave this earth better than the way we found it.

I lingered a little longer for the fresh air, glistening grass, and beautiful flowers, but when I left, peace reigned.

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‘Cause I’m going to strawberry fields

The best part of travelling to a new city is the discovery. You discover traditions, cultural qualms, and awe-striking moments that the inhabitants of the city take for granted.

New York City was like that for me. In addition to my Wall Street adventures and the breeze-kissing Staten Island Ferry ride, I also happen to walk, a lot, into nature while she was doing what she does best—being.

It was during one of those unexpected walks that I came across Strawberry Fields.

The moment I knew I’d be visiting NYC, I made a “where to go when” list. And I’d set aside the entirety of a Sunday to exploring the Central Park. I’d heard of it so many times, referenced in movies, TV series, and books, that I was itching to experience it for myself. But I had no idea about Strawberry Fields.

Strawberry Fields —John Lennon memorial in Central Park, New York City

Strawberry Fields —John Lennon memorial in Central Park, New York City

Walking around Central Park on a warm Sunday morning, I felt home. All around me tourists dropped jaws, clicked photos, and shopped for souvenirs while locals jogged on, unperturbed, uncaring. Letting my feet guide me to no place in particular, I headed ahead seeing green everywhere I turned.

And then I stopped at a board that read, Strawberry Fields. It had a mention of Yoko Ono, a vague message I couldn’t discern, but it urged me to enter anyway. A large triangular-shaped field met my eyes. I walked along the edge of it which, though covered in trees, still had a good view of the residential buildings that lay beyond.

Turning around, I noticed a clamour of people huddling around. It took me a while to spot the massive mosaic on the ground, around which they took turns photographing. The words I’d seen on the board at the entrance made sense now. This was John Lennon’s memorial, and Yoko Ono had something to do with its dedication to him.

Approaching the mosaic, I passed painters and small-scale vendors who sold John Lennon buttons and magnets. Engravings, quotes, photos, song names—it was more than enough to kindle nostalgia and tease passers-by to buy. When I approached the mosaic, I saw what attracted people so much: an engraving with a single word, Imagine.

Of course, it’s one of the first John Lennon songs I’d heard, and it’s still my favourite. A smile escaped my lips without my consent. For the first time in life, it didn’t bother me that I was part of a cult. It didn’t bother me that I, like the rest of the idiots around me, was a fan. Perhaps not as raving as they, but raving still in my own way. I watched as couples, groups, and kids came forward one after the other, taking turns to capture their moment with what’s left of John Lennon’s memory.

Travel, and nature, for me, isn’t just about going to places. It’s not about posing for photographs in front of aged memorials and historical monuments. Travel for me is about being in the moment. It’s about inhaling a fresh breath of history, of standing someplace reminiscing its story and sensing the elation that comes with knowing that I’d become part of that history. Knowing that everything we consider essential and grand in our lives is futile and will fade away just like the people and the stories of which I was hearing. Travel, in that aspect, teaches that nothing we cling to is permanent.

And with that thought, I turned away. I later learnt that the name Strawberry Fields comes after a song he wrote for The Beatles, Strawberry Fields Forever—which, in turn, was his dedication to a children’s home called Strawberry Field back in Liverpool, England near the house he grew up in.

As for the residential area I’d seen while walking around the edge of the field are the Dakota Apartments—where Lennon lived in his later years and where he was killed in 1980.

I didn’t know all these when I stood in the field but knowing it now magnifies my experience and adds a whole new layer of meaning to my trip.

Tower of freedom

Say Miami and people reply with, “Beach, please.”

Yes, from what I saw in my brief time in Miami, the city is all about its many beaches, suntans, margaritas, and coastal souvenirs.

But what if you don’t like all of the above?

That was me in Miami. A vegan in the seafood city. A park walker among shopaholics. The best thing about it, though, about being an outcast, is that you find places no one else talks about.

Like The Freedom Tower, for instance.

An art museum and the headquarters of a few departments of the Miami Dade College, the Freedom Tower was once the epicentre of Miami’s people.

When I first set eyes on the building, I knew nothing about it. My map informed me it was a museum, and curious to learn the city’s culture - and more so to avoid standing under the sun - I entered the intricate architectural marvel. I’d noticed from afar that it was a proper tower. Although smaller in diameter than the buildings I’d seen in New York City and Chicago, it’s just as tall.

Paying a rather hefty entrance fee of $12, I went it with a confused mind. Perhaps I over paid, I wondered. I worry about entrance fees where ever I go, not because of the price but because I hate leaving thinking I’d wasted it. The thought lingered as I accepted the brochures from staff, listening as they explained what I should expect to see before letting me explore.

Constructed in 1925, The Freedom Tower was the headquarters of The Miami News, which the publication vacated in 1957 as refugees from Cuba flocked the city and the government needed a place to process them.

As I stood there watching vintage photographs of the people who’d fled Fidel Castro’s regime to come to Miami instead, I felt an intense coldness replace the heat in my body. Children torn away from their parents, families shattered, lives disrupted, these people had come to the only place that’d take them. And there I was, half a century later, on the same spot that the early residents of Miami had bled and wept.

It was a powerful moment of realisation. Although the government sold the building to private buyers afterwards, it still stands as a haunting reminder of the city’s history. It’s no wonder that Spanish is such an integral part of Miami - airports, stores, street signs all had a Spanish version of their English text and messages.

Concluding that I hadn’t wasted my money at all, I moved on to other exhibits. Sure, I could’ve learnt the history and, perhaps, even seen the photos online. However, there’s a strange comfort about being in the presence of history.

The New World Mural 1513

The New World Mural - The Freedom Tower, Miami

The New World Mural – The Freedom Tower, Miami

The building’s design included the original but painters had to recreate it in 1988 to protect it from ruin.

Kislak Center

This one showcased hundreds of artefacts and tools used by early settlers of Miami, including cultural representations from ancient civilisations, as well as paintings and statues of olden traditions like games, meditation behaviours, and social gatherings. Original copies of history books and writing samples, and even copies of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island.

By the People

By the People - An exhibition at The Freedom Tower, Miami

By the People – An exhibition at The Freedom Tower, Miami

This is an entire floor dedicated to social and technological advancements in the US. It was perhaps the most interesting and surprising part of my visit to The Freedom Tower. It showcases social developmental proposals from individuals and organisations. Some of them were just plans but some were in production.

Examples include, an urban housing plan for California, an upgraded city plan for Detroit, eco-friendly gear and cycles for farmers, waste management systems, abortion awareness campaigns, hydrology development plans for LA, and even a proposal to revamp windows in prisons to improve inmates’ morality.

These stunning proposals made me wonder how much the world is changing and how less we’re aware of it. New home designs, architecture plans, systems for police personnel protection, smart vehicles, all of which were a glimpse of our potential and the possible future. Humans are incredible, and the mind’s capabilities transcend the impossible.

If only we put that to good use, we’ll leave the world a far better place than we found it. Perhaps humanity isn’t lost after all. If only -

Ferrying across

“Well, you can’t miss state-n island!”

“The what now?”

That’s how I reacted when my colleague suggested the adventure. I had no idea what that was. As he repeated it, I frowned trying to remember. The more I thought about it, the more it felt like I’d heard the word somewhere. Where, however, I couldn’t figure out. And then it hit me.

“Oh! Isn’t it the stat-en island?”

I didn’t know a thing about it, but word sounded familiar.

I think he insisted it was the state-n island, and I didn’t persist. After all, he should know - he’d lived in Boston for five years travelling back and forth New York City. Besides, he was the one who suggested my Wall Street experience.

But that was the end of our conversation.

Whitehall Ferry Terminal, Manhattan, New York

Whitehall Ferry Terminal, Manhattan, New York

We were in New York City for three and a half days, for two of which we’d be working all day. Although I didn’t discount the ferry ride, I didn’t expect to make it either. I’ve never been much of a tourist, and if the ferry was such a favourite activity, I figured it’d be swarming with crowds and selfie sticks.

However, when I found myself toying with free time on my last evening in NYC, I decided to give it a shot. After all, I’d enjoyed Wall Street despite it being a tourist magnet. Perhaps the ferry wouldn’t be so bad. And it was free.

Walking out of a famous bakery in Manhattan, I headed for the bus that’d take me to the Whitehall Ferry Terminal. Shuffling this way and that on the street, asking for directions and still losing precious daylight, I determined to walk the distance instead. Awaiting the bus would’ve delayed me further, and besides, it wasn’t too far.

Nevertheless, when I reached the terminal, the doors had closed, and the ferry had just left the docks. The next one wasn’t for another half hour. Heaving a sigh, I looked at the large clock inside the terminal. It was 7 pm. Banking on luck, I could make it back to my hotel near Times Square by 10 pm. Satisfied with that prospect, I turned to the scene around me.

The white walls and the white floor tiles reminded me of hospitals. A handful of staff mopped the floors, while anxious New Yorkers queued up behind the great gates waiting to board the ferry as soon as it arrived. The more relaxed folk sat on the waiting chairs, deep in discussion, sharing a meal, or downing a beer. Little stores lined the walls selling food, beverages, and magazines.

There were hundreds of people, buzzing hum of conversation, and yet so few tourists.

I hadn’t expected that. Everywhere I looked, I saw ordinary people-in men wearing comfortable pants and shirts, women in long everyday gowns, college goers with backpacks, and office workers with laptops. Why the party that sat next to me were employees at the terminal! They discussed shift timings and how one of their colleagues who worked overtime and still didn’t get enough pay.

As I sat there, unpacking my cinnamon roll and washing it down with coffee, I realised that I was amidst the true locals.

It wasn’t as I’d imagined, because there were no silly tourists, pouting lips, the pointing of fingers, or feverish chatting in a foreign tongue.

And I savoured every moment I sat there-my vegan cinnamon roll as well as the atmosphere.

Then a horn blared. The ferry was ready for us. As the doors opened, we streamed into the ferry. There I was, an outsider feeling like I belonged there, taking each step with purpose as if it were the most natural thing for me to do.

Heading to the upper deck (there was another one above me), I found a great spot to stand. I held the railings, waiting to hit the waters. Soon another horn blared, and the captain’s voice echoed through the ferry: “Thank you for riding the Staten Island Ferry.”

A few more horns and we were off.

The next twenty minutes, I’d say, was the best I’d spent in New York City. Thanks to Daylight Savings, the sun had just begun to set, and I happened to have a pretty steady hand while the video on my camera ran.

By the time we docked at the St. George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island, the sun had set, and I’d seen one of the best of it I’d ever see.

The ferry back to Manhattan was due in another half hour. But it took me about 10 minutes to get down from the ferry on to the terminal. I stayed inside the terminal, walking around reading the signboards, strolling through the souvenir shops, and trying to make out the massive map on the floor - of the islands in the Lower Bay area, around Staten Island.

And when it was time, I did it all over again. This time, however, instead of the sunset, I saw the infamous New York City skyline illuminated by millions of lights and lives that call it home.

It was an evening that lingered in my mind throughout the subway ride back and still does to this day.

Whitehall Ferry Terminal, Manhattan, New York

“We were very tired, we were very merry — we had gone back and forth.”

Find out more about the ferry: https://www.siferry.com/

Wall Street journal

Wall Street, New York City

Wall Street, New York City

One of the most disappointing aspects of travelling for work is that despite being in a new city, a new country, you still spend the entire day inside a closed air-conditioned room. It makes no difference whatsoever whether you’re at an exotic tourist spot, your hometown, or the Big Apple.

And so it was for me at the Big Apple. I’d already strolled through the heart of the city, stopping at the Grand Central, but I still had so much more to see. And so, taking the subway after work one day, at about 6 pm, my colleague and I arrived at the industrial part of the city—Wall Street.

What did we expect? Fancy suit-sporters strutting about, proud of a day of good business. After all, that’s how it was in the movies. Home of the NY Stock Exchange, the Federal Hall, and The Charging Bull, Wall Street over-promised glory. And as one of my colleagues pointed out, no matter how much you hate being touristy, you can’t leave New York City without seeing those iconic sights—petty though they are.

I’m glad I heeded his advice. Even though business had died down by the time we reached Wall Street, we walked down the street, stared at the buildings, and made valiant attempts to capture them all on camera.

The New York Stock Exchange

New York Stock Exchange

New York Stock Exchange

Thanking Daylight Savings Time for the lingering light, we approached the looming Stock Exchange building, my eyes popping at the minute architectural details. Construction was in progress all along the street as well as on one side of the building as well. Noticing a sign that directed people to the entrance further down the road, we followed the path to encounter only closed doors and shut windows. A security guard stood by behind a mahogany desk and, cautious of crossing the work-in-progress lines, I approached him.

“Are visitors allowed inside?”

“No.” A good-natured man, he shook his head smiling.

Perhaps it’s because we’re late, the voice in my head echoed.

“Are visitors ever allowed inside?”

His smile reached his eyes. “No, I’m sorry.”

Oh, well. That was new. For all the popularity of the stock exchange, commoners will never know how it looks on the inside. We’ll have to make do with all that DiCaprio showed us.

Walking further down the road, we realised we were so close to another famous spot. Not one that I was curious or interested in at all, but we were just a few steps away. Would’ve been a shame not to stop by. And so we did.

The Charging Bull

The Charging Bull, New York City

The Charging Bull, New York City

I never understood what all the hoopla was about. Sure, it’s a magnificent beast, and yes, the sculpture is beautiful. And, of course, the defiant girl has always been an inspiration, more so in recent times. But beyond that, I wasn’t sure what brought the monument such significance. I waited a while to try and capture the Bull alone, but he was busy entertaining visitors who wanted to pose with him. People queued up for a photograph and, try though I did, I couldn’t get a proper portrait of the bull.

Shrugging—it wasn’t a big deal anyway—I returned to the map. The World Trade Centre and the 9/11 memorial seemed minutes away.

World Trade Centre

In hindsight, it seems silly to admit, but as I walked towards the World Trade Centre building, I realised I never knew what it was. All I had ever heard of it was its massive grandeur. And so when we came upon the building, I was awe-struck at how huge and welcome it was. For the second time that day, I tried, failing again to capture its entirety in one photograph. Regardless, though, relentless, I kept clicking until my colleague reminded me we should go inside. When we did, my eyes first set on the ceiling and the spine-like architecture. It’d looked like a bird’s wings from the outside, and here I stood looking at the spine that held both wings together. Calling it beautiful would be an in injustice. However, as I stood there pondering my next move, I realised I was in a shopping mall. Sure, the name is so popular that the entire world wants to be there, but when I did, although it mesmerised me, the place didn’t feel newer than the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, or Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles.

9/11 Memorial and Museum

The last thing on our list of the Wall Street journal was the most important one. Walking towards the massive hollow hole in the ground where the twin towers once stood, I couldn’t help but reminisce the behemoth that terrorism has been in our lives. Of course, it’s not a sad, empty hole now—it’s instead a memorial fountain with names of all the victims carved in stone. It’s a glorious tribute to the dead, and yet a wrenching reminder of the horrors of the past.

With that moment of reflection, we turned away. It was time to go back to the hotel. It was a work trip, after all, and we had work to do.

P.S: Click images for full resolution.