US Road Trip; Indian Work Trip | April, 2019

Soundtrack: Juicy, Ho Hey

 

Spring time in New York City!

Every time spent in this place adds new dimensions and new lights. This time: walking down Sanoop’s memory lanes – ‘in high school, we used to play soccer off this street,’ ‘ohh, this is where I had my first beer!’, ‘Look, this yoga studio in a church used to be a night club — my cousin Tina once took me here!’, ‘Can I show you my favourite hot dog joint down this street?’, ‘This was my first apartment out of college.’ … ☀️ And creating new sweet memories together — as well as together with family, close friends, and sweet colleagues. This week is a lovely whirlwind of work and pleasure, insightful and enriching in totally other ways than the previous week in Nigeria and, so I imagine, next week in Bangalore. Very grateful I get to do this.

Work. When it comes to the business side of this trip, my only concern is that I might wake up and realise that it was all a dream — I’m so terrified it will all come crashing down and disappear. To think that I am allowed to sit on a 14th floor terrace in clear sunshine together with three sweet, smart, funny colleagues, whom by now I can also call my friends, with views to the Freedom Tower and the Statue of Liberty in breaks between working on exciting projects, which are the right amount of challenging as well as JUST what I’m interested in. And present my insights from last week’s research trip to Nigeria, the wildest culture shock I’ve ever experienced and the most meaningful trip of my life, to an audience of more than 50 people in a conference room. In New York City. Without being nervous at all, and with a bunch of constructive feedback to follow. And run around between deep work time to meet up with folks to plan stuff for a new research trip to India, which I’m going on tomorrow. I love all of it. Most of all, I love my sweet, thoughtful colleagues from/based all over the world.

Sanoop. Lovely hotel mornings. Being walked to work with a coffee in one hand and his hand in the other. His loving support, patience and positivity. Hearing him say that New York feels totally different with me in it — much nicer. I feel the same — complete. We go for long, meandering evening walks all over Downtown, Hudson River Park, Gramercy Park. Date nights at hip places across Downtown. Meet his best friend from high school for dinner in the Village. Meet my colleagues and their plus ones (almost everyone brought on on this trip — if not their spouse, then their mum or their friend! So fun!) at a bar close to the office in Chelsea.

Friday off. After a full-on work week with just mornings and evenings spent with Sanoop, I crave some daytime hang with him as well. The work summit ended on Thursday night; most of my team are travelling today; I’m travelling for work again on Saturday; today is a free day! Morning run along East River. Yoga, reading, chilling at the hotel room, while listening to Juicy by Notorious Big and Empire State of Mind. Walk up 6th Avenue to Columbus Circle for a late breakfast from Whole Foods in Time Warner Center, which, along with Hudson Hotel just behind the centre, is where I first fell in love with New York City, some fifteen years ago. After eating our build-your-own salads and drinking an apple cider vinegar, lemon, ginger and cucumber juice, we head over to the neon-lit hotel. The decor, smell, general feel is still totally the same as it was 12 years ago — and it brings tears of nostalgic joy to my eyes. Next time my family comes here, Freehand is definitely a better option than the Hudson — less of a party hotel and similarly, if not more, full of character and charm, but way better located, Gramercy Park being just a short walk from everything fun and lovely south of Union Square and still not too far from Central Park. Hudson was perfect a decade ago; and I still have a soft spot for it. Glad Sanoop got to experience it. We take a cab, in the first and only rain shower of the week, up along and across the Park to Andrew Carnegie’s old mansion, 5th Avenue and 91st Street. In Singapore, a few weeks ago, Sanoop was reading Carnegie’s biography and became deeply fascinated with him. We wanted to check out the house he had constructed, in what back then were the calmer suburbs, when his daughter was born. And are delighted to discover, upon arrival, that not only can we enter the opulent house overlooking the Reservoir, it is now housing a fantastic design museum, Cooper Hewitt, with lots of cool interactive installations. A museum in a museum — what with the many preserved features from the Carnegie family’s time — and a magnificent one at that! Such a treat! We had just agreed that the streets of New York, well any city- or landscape really, are a living museum in itself — to see curated versions of the art of life is not really something we crave… yet, we do enjoy this tremendously. Cool detail: museum staff have their own colourful canvasses exhibited along a long corridor by the museum cafe. Uplifted by the show, we take the subway down to Union Square, pick up some laundry and a coffee, fetch our luggage from the hotel, and take a cab up to Grand Central Terminal, from where we, of course after having devoured smørrebrød at the Great Northern Dining Hall, embark on a train to the ‘burbs, more specifically, Hastings-on-Hudson, where Sanoop’s brother picks us up from the train station and drives us home to his kids, wife and father-in-law, the latter of whom just arrived from Mumbai this morning. We have a lovely evening of chatting, eating homemade curry, drinking red wine, watching the fireplace and listening to the kids’ favourite pop tracks.

Italian corner of the Bronx. On Saturday morning, we all head to the charming Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. So authentically cool that hipster haven’t even reached it yet. Real Americana. Sprinkled with some Italian flavour. Cute, colourful, lively main street. We eat freshly shucked oysters and clams at a stall set up in front of a fishmonger, walk over to an indoor market building, which dates back to 1940, for a hearty Italian lunch, and head down the road for a double espresso at a cosy corner coffee shop. I then hop on an uber to JFK – the others are going to listen to jazz somewhere in Harlem tonight. I know that as soon as I land in Bangalore, I will be fine — but as I kiss Sanoop and drive off in the sunshine towards the airport, I feel super homesick. In fact, I feel very small. I just want to be here in New York with my love. I’ll be back with him, in the city, in a week. And he’s with me everywhere and all of the time, I know. And the week will be packed and speedy — full of enriching cultural and business insights. But those minutes of saying goodbye and leaving are just never fun — and growing older means learning to accept and honour that, and be as good to myself and my surroundings throughout those minutes as possible.

Family. Saturday is my brother’s 30th birthday. He’s celebrating it in Edinburgh. In a few weeks, my parents, Sanoop and I will celebrate him in London as well. I miss all three of them so much, and I’m so happy for them. They’re all thriving and happy with their lives, and knowing that is one of the main things fuelling my way of living.

Bengaluru

India’s fastest-growing metropolis, known as Garden City for its parks and lush landscapes, is home to 400 of the Fortune 500 companies yet maintains its rich history and traditions. Alongside technology and industry, the third most populated Indian city boasts a thriving dining culture, high-quality silks, arts and theatre — and beautiful weather. I arrive after 24 hours of travel, at around 2am. Security pick me up from the airport and drive me to the glitzy Ritz, where sweet people swiftly check me in and walk me to my room on the 14th floor. I thank them, close the door and call my brother, whose birthday weekend is coming to an end, call Sanoop, who is enjoying a chilled afternoon in New York, and message my parents, who’ve long gone to bed, in that order. I then splash some cold water on my face, brush my teeth, debate whether to shower or not, decide against it, and go to bed, trying to sleep and prepare mentally for a new work week in a very different environment, and all I can hear and dream of is standing on the corner of Canal and Bowery. My mind is 99% full of spring vibes in New York City with my baby, and I was so teary on our video call, haha. 1% full of excitement for the week ahead. I know that all I need is sleep, and that everything will feel right in the morning. Sanoop sends me this, saying that it reminded him of me, Linda Kohanov notes in her book, Power of the Herd: A Nonpredatory Approach to Social Intelligence, Leadership, and Innovation that, ‘No matter what happens, horses exhibit exceptional emotional agility: they experience each moment openly and authentically, blazing through fear, power, pain, excitement, loss, playfulness, and unmitigated joy. And then they go back to grazing, spending a significant portion of each day milling languidly about in a state of deep peace that arises naturally when you’re not afraid of life.’

And sure enough; when I wake up at 7:30am on Monday, the first thing that comes to mind is curiosity about the view from my room. Blue skies! Myriads of white office and residential buildings! Lush greenery popping out all over! I do the 5 Tibetans in front of this panorama, then shower, and head down to the beautiful hotel pool for some stretchy laps in the cool water to the mixed sounds of relaxing tunes descending from speakers hiding in the frangipani trees surrounding the pool and HOOOONKS from the streets below. I’m slowly starting to feel the excitement take shape… I am in India! Feeling ready, finally, to make the most of it! I message Sanoop’s parents, telling them that I’m in their country and feeling rather strange about being somewhere other than with them in Kerala, but that I’m doing really great. They respond saying that they’re happy I’m breathing Indian air, so different from American air, and to keep them updated about my week. I then head upstairs again, shower once again, eat a healthy breakfast of fresh tropical fruits, raw veggies and sourdough bread with beetroot hummus. Lots of black coffee and fresh ABC juice, pineapple juice, cucumber juice. Flip through today’s issue of Bengaluru Express, reading bits and pieces here and there. Tech, travel, traffic. Gosh! I’m in India! Work from the hotel until 3pm – making sure I’m up to speed on the week’s programme, which officially starts tomorrow morning and will be packed until Friday night. Head out to explore Cubbon Park, which is absolutely gorgeous: lush cascades of palm trees, bamboo, frangipani, bougainvillaea and other tropical flora, little boys running around and playing cricket on a meadow covered in withered yellow flower petals, hundreds of couples enjoying each other’s company on benches or in the grass, fruit and sugar cane sellers showing off their colourful goods on the overgrown garden paths. On the way back to the hotel, just before it starts to grow dark, I pop by a Fab India for a pair of golden slippers and a pretty scarlet tunic. In some ways, meandering around like this feels very familiar, because I have been in the country before. The smells and noises in the streets, the heavy, sweet, dry air, people’s mannerisms and attire. And at the same time, it’s an adventure and so very different to being in Kerala, Goa or Hyderabad with Sanoop and family. I’m on my own, but in the best supported way, with wonderful colleagues and all of the amenities I (or anyone?!) could ask for – and with Sanoop readily available for a brief virtual encouragement when homesickness strikes or I feel super inspired by something (factors which chase each other perpetually). Back from my escapade, I order a South Indian vegan room service dinner full of lentils, cauliflower, turmeric, chilli and raw ginger, do some yoga while I wait for the zesty food to be served along with freshly squeezed pineapple juice, work for another few hours, read, catch up with loved ones. Take a moment to soak in the present. And another moment to hope for the best this week — that my contributions, whichever they’ll be, will matter, and that collaborations with the team will be as enriching as those I experienced in Nigeria and New York.

Cut to Friday morning, where I go for a run in Cubbon Park with a colleague from New York, reflecting on the week we’ve just been through and the work we’ve been doing, interviewing various locals and doing usability studies with them at their homes and in labs, conducting co-creation workshops with another set of users at the hotel, and debriefing together as a group in traffic and at restaurants late at night. It’s been good, felt meaningful, resulted in awesome insights and fruitful discussions … intense. At the end of the run, we meet some colleagues for a quick masala dosa breakfast at a nearby branch of the popular MTR chain. Today is synthesis day at a studio near the hotel, and then we’re done. On Monday, I wished for the week to go quickly, and now I can’t believe how quickly it went. Late on Friday evening, I share a cab to the airport with an American colleague who is flying Singapore Airlines to San Francisco. I tell her to check out Changi Jewel on her 3-hour layover in Singers; it opened just the other day and made me feel a huge pang of homesickness … just as I’m now homesick for spring in Denmark — and being in our wonderful Hampstead, nesting …. gotta pull myself together and remember that the grass is at its greenest where you water it. Ahhh.

Saturday. 6-hour layover in sunny Paris. I’m tempted to pop into town, but pace myself, and instead, curl up with coffee on a bench and instil my Bangalore takeaways into a deck. On the flight back to New York, I watch Bohemian Rhapsody and Mary Poppins. Sanoop and his brother pick me up at JFK, taking me straight to a hip yet still-gritty part of Brooklyn for a beer-tasting session at a rustic microbrewery, after which we head to  Astoria, Queens, for amazing Greek food with the rest of the family.

Sunday. Morning run along the quaint villa roads and leafy aqueduct path of Hastings. 22 degrees celsius. Spring scents. Calm. Blissful. Excitement. Adventure. Reaching Untermyer Park, where the gatehouse ruins look extra alluring against the backdrop of the steep rocks lining the Palisades Park on the other side of the Hudson. So quiet. Just half an hour outside of Manhattan. Back home, Sanoop’s brother makes me coffee on his manual grinder and nifty Italian coffeemaker. Sanoop and I take the kids for a drive (his niece is the car’s DJ, and both kids sing along loudly the entire way, Sanoop and I chiming in to the best of our Selena Gomez/Taylor Swift/Ariana Grande ability) to Jersey City to visit his cousin and her family. We all head out for brunch in their neatly gentrified neighbourhood, followed by a meander around the trendy block, cherry blossoms all around, and sweeping views of Manhattan’s skyline stealing the show. Leaving the kids with Sanoop’s cousin, he and I walk over to his first home in America, from he was 8 years of age and until he left for college in Atlanta. Their house on Hopkins Ave, the corner shop where he’d go to buy milk, and way too frequently got mugged, his private catholic grammar school, the next-door church, his mum’s favourite church in the world, where they’d go each Sunday. Memories. Emotions. Smiles. Later in the day, we all head upstate to Beacon, such an idyllic town amidst the mountains further up the river, and take a walk along the pretty main street, checking out the various creative boutiques, and ending up at a riverside brewery for beer, wine, and snacks. I fall asleep in the car on the way home.

 

NYC Week

Taking the morning train into Manhattan. It just keeps being a fantastic idea — how something so mundane as taking the train to work is simultaneously such a marvellous thing. Walking down the steeply sloping streets of Hastings, getting coffee from Antoinette’s, the local coffeeshop, where all of the regulars are slowly waking up, hunched over their bathtub-sized cozily steaming coffees. Continuing over to the train station, where the modest sign says something as immodest as TO NEW YORK. The water is glistening in the Hudson just next to the train tracks, with the palisades towering on the opposite bank. The train takes me to Grand Central Terminal, from where I zigzag my way down to Chelsea, getting a second coffee on the way, from either Felix Roasting Company, Blue Bottle, or Joe and the Juice, in crisp, clear, fragrant spring air. This special energy. Intense office work Monday-Thursday. Date night at Bread & Brine in Hastings; Americana on a golden hour sunlit bar counter. Double date night at a sushi place on the Lower East Side — with the Hong Kong-American couple whose Barcelona wedding we attended last year. Me time — roaming downtown after 10-hour work days.

 

Road trip

Day 1. After an energising morning kickboxing class with Sanoop’s sister-in-law and niece, Sanoop and I rent a car and drive to quaint (the word I exclaim the most on this trip, as we enter one cute town after the other) Lancaster — visit an Amish farm, marvel at the Amish people and their horse buggies as we pass them on the road, drink a local beer at a microbrewery, eat at a vegan restaurant. In total today, we touch roads in six different states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. It’s my first time in the latter four, and it feels like such a great, novel adventure — beautiful spring weather, light green buds and pink spring blooms along all of the highways, neat small towns filled with wooden houses in all the pastel shades of the rainbow, wraparound porches, and neat hydrangea bushes framing their neatly manicured lawns. When it gets dark, we’ve reached Winchester, another idyllic-looking town, where we make a new friend at a bar. Nick shares his life story and his best hiking recommendations — he always travels solely by “shoelace express,” in fact, he’s never been on an airplane in his life. We chat for an hour or more, and then he invites us to come join him for drag bingo night at another pub; we say thanks, but no thanks, give him big hugs as we part ways after settling up, and then check into the Travelodge around the corner. All we know about this trip is that we want to go to Asheville, North Carolina, and that we need to end up in Virginia in a week for Sanoop’s cousin’s wedding. Other than that, we’ve got no plans. We’ll just take one day at a time, see where the highways and country roads lead us, seeking out local tips on the way.

Day 2. Beautiful morning in Winchester. Slowly strolling around town under lush canopies of cherry blossoms, we stop to get a decent coffee from one local cafe, and dreamy bagels from another. Drive through West Virginia — rolling hills, pretty farm houses and barns. Stop in a forest carpark that our friend Nick mentioned, and do a beautiful two-hour hike through a hilly, rocky forest to Raven Rock, where we stop to breathe and enjoy the sweeping views, before trekking back the same way, meeting very few people on the narrow paths. So peaceful. Pitstop at Bluemont Vineyard, nestled in the first ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains … I get goosebumps at the thought: we’re in the famous Blue Ridge Mountains! Tasting various local wines under a blazing sun on a large and lively terrace with sweeping views of the vines, while a guitarist is playing and singing John Denver’s Country Roads next to us, which makes me laugh out loud as it’s just too perfect. I sing along, of course, tip the guy generously, and when we get back on the road, I put the song on repeat — it was of course already on our road trip playlist. Heading further south to Roanoke, we also listen to a bunch of episodes of the New York Times’ The Daily, just to mix it up a little and connect back to the real world. Stop briefly in Harrisonburg for a cup of coffee at a glorious hipster store with great artisan coffee and sustainable goods. Another brief stop in Lexington, which feels like a little piece of preppy New England in the South. Cute main street, large, majestic villas on perfectly manicured, sloping lawns, and the jewel of it all, the grand university campus. Finally, Roanoke. We gaze upon the star on the hill, and fall asleep at a Holiday Inn.

Day 3. The air in Roanoke feels so crisp and clear — it’s a beautiful, quiet mountain town; the kind of town where people (in this case, the brothers running the hip Roasters Next Door) will ask you where you are from and point out that they’ve never seen you around before: everyone knows everyone. We climb to the top of the hill to see the star up-close, and then we hit the Blue Ridge Parkway: such sweeping views… it feels almost mythical. Favourite little town of the day: Floyd, a vibrant little village, attracting young and old organically-minded farmers, painters, ceramicists, and musicians from across the region. It’s absolutely brimming with little, lovely galleries and arts and crafts stores. The heart of the town is a charming ‘country store,’ where there’s a jam session going on as we peek in. 15 musicians are sitting in a circle at the back of the store, mainly men, with one female violinist and floor base player, but lots of female dancers stepping into the circle to accompany the bluegrass tunes with some lively moves. I’m intrigued by a lady sitting outside the circle with three wooden jiggy dolls, who’re all dancing along to the music, their rhythmic steps serving as robustly clicking-clacking instruments. She notices me gazing at her and kindly nods and smiles for me to come on over. I get to meet the niftily dressed dolls, Jeff, a Save the Earth activist, who’ll ask you what you’re going to do for the planet, the lady tells me, and his two friends, Alice and Jenny, who’re just dancing, carefree and steadily. She shows me how to make them dance, and hands me one of them, and suddenly I’m a part of the band. 

Days 4-5. Asheville, oh Asheville! A Byron Bay of North Carolina. Gorgeous nature, hip and happy town, an alluringly laid-back, creative vibe. We’re staying at a neat airbnb cabin in the hills above town, going for a morning run among the trees and stunning remote villas, and spending the 1.5 days exploring the hippie-hipster paradise. WNC Farmers Market. Early Girl Eatery. West Asheville Yoga. Galleries, breweries, street art. We buy a beautiful vase at a serenely bright and calm pottery workshop and store, where Matisse’s grandchild uses North Carolina clay to make and sell gorgeous creations. We also find ourselves picking up possibly overpriced CBD creams at a hip health store. And spend close to an hour in a dusty indie bookstore. Ah! 12 Bones Smokehouse lunch. River Arts District. Nine Mile Caribbean dinner. Dobra Tea House. Short hike for a romantic Craggy Gardens sunset. In the late afternoon on Wednesday, we drive through lush rolling hills to the Great Smoky Mountains and check into another cute little airbnb cabin, just outside of Sylva, this one with a back porch overlooking a chuckling creek. 

Day 6. Sweet little Sylva treats us to craft beer at Innovation Brewery and coffee at White Moon Coffee, both establishments owned by young, passionate folks who moved here from New York City to pursue a slow, simple lifestyle. We also go for a couple of hikes, the Deep Creek Loop and Lake James State Park, seeing lots of waterfalls and horses on the way. Glorious weather. That night we stay in Durham, a 3.5-hour drive back north.

Day 7. Drive to Richmond. Go to the highest point in town, a small park, and gaze across a valley with a river winding its way through a pretty green landscape. The view reminds us of home, and a sign plastered to the fence lining the park tells us that that’s what happened to the founders of the city as well … they were standing in the same spot as us, faced with a vista that looks exactly like the view of the Thames snaking it’s way through the English countryside from the top of the UK’s Richmond Park, haha, and bam! they had a name for the town. The residential roads around this park, however, are nothing like the white mansions in the London suburb; the architecture and feel around here is doubtlessly American. There are some Trump quotes in some of the windows. We enjoy a yummy lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Ethiopian place, explore the downtown for a little bit, and at dusk, we check into a tiny little cabin by a forest lake.

Day 8. The last leg of our trip takes us to another wooden cabin, this time a very large and very fancy one, in the forest-clad rolling hills of the Virginian countryside, where we’re staying with Sanoop’s parents, who just flew in from India, and his brother and his family for the weekend. Family wedding Saturday. Family brunch on Sunday. Back home to London after five weeks on the road, squeezing in another hike, involving crossing a bridge over the Potomac River, and another winery visit, our favourite one so far, where the owner of the newly opened, beautiful place come over to our table in the idyllic garden next to the vines and chat for a while, before dropping off our car by the airport.

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