This piece appeared in the January issue of Windows & Aisles, the inflight magazine of Paramount Airways as Rediscover Your City.
Imagine this situation. Your friends are visiting from out of town and you have gone out with them. They are new to your city and stop to stare and comment over every single thing they see on the way. And you gamely join in their conversation, trying not to show your impatience. You are thinking, what is the big deal anyway? I have seen this a hundred times. Sounds familiar so far? And suddenly, you spot something that grabs your attention: a shop, a signboard, a temple, or even a large tree that you notice for the first time.
And you think, how come I have never seen this before? At that time, you look around and are truly aware of your surroundings for the first time that day. You have started seeing your own city through the eyes of an outsider.
And what a wonderful feeling that is! French writer and essayist Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Sometimes, it is nice to step back and look at the familiar, in this case, your own city, with fresh eyes. A quick in-town vacation serves to renew your fondness for your city and acts as a refresher for your tired nerves. However, we tend to take familiar things for granted and it is not always possible or easy to see something new and exciting in a place we are used to. American writer Helen Hanff’s book ‘Apple of my eye’, an unabashed tribute to her beloved New York, was written after two months of exploring the city with her friend Patsy. Hanff began her own voyage of discovery when she was commissioned to write copy for a book of photographs on New York, and realized that she actually knew little about her city. And towards the end of the book, Patsy remarks, “We own this city now. Do you feel that way?”
So here are some ideas on how to rediscover, and thus, own your city.
1. Change your usual mode of transport – If you normally drive around town, walk for a change. Walking is really the best way to take in the sights and sounds of any place. Walking, especially walking without a purpose forces you to slow down and notice the small details that make things seem new and different. It lets you stop where you wish, to take photographs or just stare and assimilate. You could even take a guided walking tour through an interesting area of the city. For instance, try Bangalore Walks or Delhi Magic one weekend for personalized walking tours of your city.
Alternatively, take a round bus tour, getting off to explore where you find something interesting. To enhance this experience further, use this time to indulge in your particular passion, as when you travel. For instance, you could take a quick spa vacation within the city (hunt for and indulge yourself in the two best spas in you town on two consecutive weekends), or a heritage tour say, covering the churches of Goa or the Portuguese remnants in Cochin or the Nawabi lifestyle in Hyderabad.
2. Eat at a restaurant serving authentic local food – This may sound like a crazy idea (especially if you eat the same kind of food mostly at home), but it is one of the easiest ways to start thinking afresh about your city and culture. When I lived in Ahmedabad, I used to be surprised by how many locals thronged specialty Gujarati restaurants like Vishala or Agashiye but it was soon clear that they were there to savour their culture as much as their food. These need not be fancy or expensive restaurants; for instance, if you live in Bangalore, make a weekend evening trip to the thindi beedi (food street) at V.V. Puram opposite the Lalbagh Gate or the small popular eateries of Malleswaram and Basavangudi to sample local Karnataka fare like obbattu or benne dosa.
3. Explore a local market – Close on the heels of eating authentic local food is visiting a local market – preferably a specialty fresh food or flower market. A stroll through a marketplace offers a variety of experiences, many of them new even to a long-time resident. There is truly nothing that radiates the essence of a city, or offers the experience of cultural immersion better.
“Every time I start to feel tired of Delhi, I head to the lanes of Chandni Chowk with my camera”, says a photographer friend, adding, “It is a great experience, at the same time to get away from it all while getting more absorbed in the city’s rhythm”. You could go shopping, either by yourself, or with friends or visitors and hunt for unique souvenirs or specialties that your city is famous for. The other exciting part about market visits is that such places are usually filled with people from other towns who have moved to yours for a living. Talking to them is a wonderful way of seeing your city from an entirely new perspective.
4. Accompany a guest to famous city landmarks – This may be an often-visited place or one that you have been meaning to visit but never did so far (Helene Hanff admits in the beginning of her book that in all those years in New York, she had never visited the Statue of Liberty). While on this trip, be aware of your own experience and look through the eyes of a tourist. And if you find that cannot bring yourself to see your city through fresh eyes, borrow them! Allow the enthusiasm of your visitors to rub off on you.
You could pack a hamper and take your visiting friends to Lodi Gardens (in Delhi) or Cubbon Park (in Bangalore) for a leisurely picnic lunch (especially recommended during the salubrious winter months). Or take guests early in the morning to see the splendour of Howrah Bridge (Calcutta) or the Chinese fishing nets (Cochin) or the Meenakshi temple (Madurai) – and you will be surprised by how attractive your city really is.
5. Peep into a guidebook on your city – This could be a Lonely Planet equivalent for your city which directs you on places to visit, dine and have fun. Be a tourist for the day, carrying a guide book and a map, if required, and go exploring. You would do well to pay particular attention to the ‘off the beaten path’ tips that such guides offer.
Better still, read a book about your city and then go out to explore. This need not be a travel guide; it could be a traditional travelogue or a work of fiction with the city as the protagonist. Examples are ‘Madras Rediscovered’ by historian S.Muthiah, where the stunning black and white photographs alone are sure to make you long for an era long gone, or William Dalrymple’s ‘City of Djinns’ where the past and present intermingle to create an ode to the city as it stands today. Or ‘Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa’ edited by Jerry Pinto and Geoffrey Moorhouse’s ‘Calcutta’, which delves with patience, and even fondness, into the complex fabric of Calcutta’s history and contemporary society.
It is time to get into rediscovery mode now. Pretend that you are moving out of the city and devote a weekend, or even a week to doing all the things you will later regret not doing. Happy in-town vacationing!