Wednesday, May 29, 2013

US Diaries: Washington DC

My last trip in the States was to Washington DC, the big daddy of sleepy capital cities across the world. It was different from how I'd imagined it, but familiar in a comforting way. Having lived in enough quaint capital cities, DC seemed like a natural (but important!) addition to the list. I saw lots in the three days I was there, but if I started sharing all my pictures and experiences, all my loyal readers (yes, all three of you) would quickly settle in for a snooze, dormouse style.

So I'll tell you about the first evening I was there. I'd gotten off the bus intending to just walk down the historic/touristy Mall Road. I wanted to get my bearings and properly visit it the next day, but about twelve minutes into my arrival on holy land, God decided he had other plans.

Or maybe someone just wished on a dandelion for me.

Baby dandelion, Vietnam War Memorial
As it were, the first thing I saw in DC was its most targeted celebrated building of all. Save the best for last? Psh.

Instagramming the White House, oh yeah.
With that giant tourist tickbox out of the way, I could spend the rest of the evening checking out all the other monuments I'd grown up learning about. I started with my favourite, the Lincoln Memorial. It looked absolutely stately in the setting sun.

And of course, I ran into some ducks. I always run into ducks. 

But the lighting was gorgeous, and I really enjoyed watching them from where I was: flat out on the floor and in awe. Honestly, it's the best place to watch ducks wiggle-waggle their way into the end of the day.

I spent the rest of the evening wiggle-waggling down the Mall myself. I saw war heroes on horseback, lots of people running around in the lawns opposite Chez PrĂ©sident, and gorgeous views of the sunset across the Potomac (puh-toh-muk, for the unitiated). 

A general, a lady and a guard, anonymised by the sun.

Did I mention it was spring? One of my four favourite seasons of the year.

The best season for soccer, especially if it's in the lawns opposite the President's.

"So where do you guys practice?" "Oh, right across from Obama's"
Fancy that.

Then there were some more monuments and important-looking things. And this cool reflecting pool where I met some fishermen who looked like they'd swum over from New Orleans. They looked happy just sitting on their ice boxes and calling out the occasional insult to that day's luckiest angler.

Capitol Hill, looking
I would be happy too, if I had this view everyday.

Or this.

Washington Monument, aka My Sister's Needle. Like Cleopatra, she was born in Egypt. And like this monolith, she has braces. Go figure.
Riding into the sun posthumously, oh yeah
Wall from the Roosevelt Memorial. Click to view in large!

But my favourite part of the day was undoubtedly watching the sun set over the Potomac River. While the monuments and memorials are fairly new, the river has been here forever. And it's the most amazing feeling to stand there and realise that in walking along its banks, you are forever joined with everyone else who has done the same. You're now part of history.

One of the many translations for the name Potomac is 'the place to which tribute is bought'. Standing there, that feels exactly right. Around you, the world turns ceaselessly and madly; bridges ferry traffic on both sides, planes take off and land, children in prams whiz by with parents out on their evening run, and the largest squirrels you'll probably ever see chase each other up and down tree trunks. But you look across the banks, and everything else melts away, all the people and their sounds and all the things you've been worrying about, so that it's just you and the water. And the ghosts of Alongquins and former US Presidents watching over you.

And that, is a powerful, beautiful feeling.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

US Diaries: San Francisco

Welcome to San Francisco, where the sea is blue and the sky is clear. Where roads wind into knobbly hills and the sun shines too brightly for fear. (Mild Batman reference, y'all)

SF has people of all colours, you'll find

...those with faith of a modern kind,

..and those who clearly dress with other things in mind.

You'll see people protesting for their right to be seen and heard,

...and others who think all that showing off is absurd.

You'll find pearls of wisdom at every street corner,

...or graffiti done in an indistinct haze of marijuan-er.

Of course, like everyone else, sometimes artists get blue

lose their minds and their shoes,

and find all kinds of muse.

But eventually, if they search hard enough, everyone who comes to California finds what they're looking for...

Whether it's clear or near,

or just something they've never seen before.

A note on the photos: Most of this collection comes from the day I spent walking around a few of San Francisco's famous neighbourhoods. The brightly coloured murals are from the Latino Mission District, one of my favourites. Their vividity really jumps out at you when viewed in person, but in the absence of that, you can just click on them to view them in large. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Great Gatsby Soundtrack - It sucks, but you should listen to it anyway

Mid-travelogue, a post about the Great Gatsby soundtrack, because I read it once too many times as a child, and it's the most quintessentially American novel I could think of while searching for American novels to read before my trip to the US. And because it's releasing soon and I love Leo diCaprio and Tobey Maguire and I'm pumped up to watch it. Even if it's in 3D.

The songlist itself is roughly separated into two halves: songs to listen to on days you just want to feel sorry for your life and songs that you could make while on crack and in the mood to party.

That said, it's not all bad.

For one, it's the perfect soundtrack to associate with Gatsby's life. All that mad partying masking the awful screams of a broken heart that doesn't want to step out of the vortex of its own doing. Yes, that's how it sounds, with the RandomDeadPerson feat. Jay Z mixings, Lana del Ray weeping her heart out, and the squeaky guy from Gotye on the same soundtrack. It (sort of) makes sense for a movie soundtrack to have happy songs for the first half of the movie while everything's going good, and sad songs for the part where the hero is crying over a girl he can't have and ruining his life with alcohol. But what these songs try to capture in 'raw'ness, they lose in good musical taste. More times than not, the album puts out the kind of songs you'd expect to hear in the basement of an alternative club in London's dirtiest, most wannabe punk neighbourhood: generic soft ambient music tenderfooting a low wail that turns into screaming that you wish would stop (at least when his voice breaks thrice successively). Maybe that's the cloying, darkness-creeping-up-inside-you-till-you-want-to-break-your-body kind of feeling they were going for. If so, then yes, it works.

Other than that, it just seems like the kind of album that was put together by the kind of sixteen-year-old kids with fluorescent orange skinny jeans and coiffed updos that the movie industry occasionally sends around to stand awkwardly on red carpets as musical geniuses. No matter how many phony music producers the big guys try to convince to stake their bets on these "next big thing[s]", or how many indie chicks they try to draw in for a mildly obsessive fan-following, these kids are not virtuousos, they're just kids with serious developmental issues.

Soundtracks are usually just one part of a far more complex whole, and I haven't seen the movie yet, so I won't stake my bets till I see how it all looks together. With a soundtrack like this, you need to have absolutely mind-blowing direction, and there certainly is great scope for the dreamy cinemascapes and dark pop scenes that almost materialise when you're listening to the album a song at a time. So I have high hopes for what the music directors plan to do with it. But let's wait and watch.

A final word? There are some people who like to listen to music that sounds like Brownian motion on three different drugs at the same time. And some people who like the distinct buzz of a hangover of a night you were so gone you're not sure you had sex with a fucked-up person or not. For those people, the Gatsby soundtrack is spot on. There are others who like soundtracks not for the music but for what they evoke (either within you or from the movie), and for them, this is one to watch. And then there are those people who aren't interested in listening to entire albums (or reading long, angsty reviews like this one) and are just looking for new songs to add to their playlists. I recommend you download "Bang Bang" by, "Love is the Drug" by Bryan Ferry & the Bryan Ferry Orchestra, and "No Church in the Wild" by Jay Z and Kanye West (feat Frank Ocean & The-Dream), [Edit: and the haunting Young and Beautiful by Lana del Ray] and leave it at that.

The Great Gatsby soundtrack is a daring album, for all the different elements it mixes and how. If it's any indication of how the movie is going to be, it's working. I'm booking tickets tonight.

Friday, May 3, 2013

NY Diary, Page Three: Dartmouth

Of all the days I spent in the States, my favourite weekend was undoubtedly the one I spent visiting Prajeet at Dartmouth. He had offered to take me hiking in the mountains around Hanover whenever I came (even though, as I later found out, he had midterms that coming week).

I was excited, he was excited, the weather gods were excited...and like the eponymous movie, they went a bit crazy, because at the end of a perfectly sunny week, it snowed! I mean, the crocuses were out, the famous Dartmouth Green was finally green, and everyone was walking around in sweatshirts instead of the eight layer gore-tex ski jackets needed to survive a New Hampshire winter. But on the weekend dedicated to my hiking trip, they turned it right back into a winter wonderland, if only for a day.

The night I got there, the sky was violet, the grounds wonderfully pulpy white mush, and my teeth were carrying out their own private conversation. Something to the lines of:  'It takes a special kind of crazy to bring us here in this weather.' 'Well, N is a special kind, what'd you expect?' 'Uhh, a wooly hat and more socks, maybe?!' By the time we got around to going to bed, it had started to snow again and I was looking out, snug, but wondering how we would ever go outside with weather like this.

But hiking was what we'd planned for, and hike we did. After a giant breakfast! Blueberry, chocolate chip and maple-syrup pancakes, cinnamon buns, scrambled eggs, four kinds of cereal, juice, hash browns, and a whole bunch of things I'm forgetting. All made to order in the kitchen by student reps who'd woken up before the ungodly hour of ten on a Saturday morning. Best one-dollar breakfast ever.

Anyway, this is what we walked into when we started:

and this is where we hiked, nay, clambered up to in the ice.

Imagine this view for 360 degrees around you.

While coming down the other side, we met some deer! It's one thing to see them (or any other animal, for that matter) from a distance, and quite another thing to have one scamper right past you. They are every bit as elegant and beautifully-boned as the poets would have you believe, and I felt like a hunter with my camera, when I pulled it out (albeit to shoot them). So I took a few blurry shots and left it at that. And then we took a pause for lunch. It was not venison, you'll be pleased to know.

Later, we went down to the Connecticut River and lolled in the sun on a deck someone had very clearly made just for lying down and admiring the open skies.

The river was clearly in as much of a painting mood as the skies.

And so was this pond:

Walking across to the woods by the river, we saw this sign on the bridge that divides New Hampshire and Vermont. I wonder what the person who came up with this was thinking.

We also saw this weather vane. This is probably my favourite photo of the day, because...well, awww.

Finally, we walked into these woods,

and to Mink Brook, which we crossed on a bridge made of a single tree trunk, and almost floated off on giant blocks off ice. I'm not kidding about that last part! What we also did, though, was stop and marvel at the world around us. You know, humans can go and build all the cities and sculptures and pretty-looking things they want, but this, everything that nature has to offer all around us exceeds anything our minds can even begin to imagine.

Our appetite for nature whetted and the one for food just about stirring, we went to Molly's in downtown Hanover for three huge plates of some of the best burgers I've seen in a while - I had a black bean and avocado one whose every bite warranted an ode.

For post-dinner entertainment, we did as the Dartmouth College kids do and went to check out an ice skating championship! A national one, I'm told. It was very, very cool. And then we sat around the Hopkins' cafe, sipping hotbeveragesofchoice and discussing bad henna tattoos and the world outside of academics till our bodies (or well, mine) pushed me towards a cushy mattress, my head buzzing with all the beauty and good food and Prajeet's absolutely sublime company. It had been a superlative day.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

NY Diary, Page Two: Brooklyn

What can I say about Brooklyn? Originally Dutch and presently a multicultural hub for hipsters, Brooklyn is the quintessential suburb. It is, of course, known for being the most populous of all the five boroughs, but it is also large and unsurprisingly empty during the daytime, when all the yuppies presumably jet off to their jobs across in downtown Manhattan, and everyone else bikes over to lay in the grass at Prospect Park. It's a grown-up, less high version of California. With lots of strollers.

Some photos to show you what I mean. (Click on these to see them large!)

Brooklyn is a pretty place to live in,

whether you like parks (and recreation),

 or magic trees.

Whether you like flowers

or think otherwise.

Whether you like cats,

or they like you.

 Whether you like old-fashioned ices in a cup,

or old industrial areas, which like everything else, are kind of colourful too!

Or even if you just like art on walls.

And it's the perfect place to watch the sun set. Whether you're a photographer,

or anybody else, has gorgeous views of Manhattan and the Manhattan Bridge.

(How's that for directed tourism?)