Wednesday, November 15, 2017


I was just going through and clearing my emails in my Admin / IT sub-folder and just came across this... and remembered the chilly and chilled Toronto evening when we shared a plate each of tuna, chicken and aubergine (sorry, eggplant) and sipped on Filipino hot toddies. 

On a day when days have somehow lost their sense and sequence; my mental calendar would tell me that was only 10 days, and about 30C degrees and a 8-hour time difference ago. Where the landscape is awash with sandy yellow submerging with clumsily and hastily made steel and glass of Kuwaiti skyscrapers whereas they would have been much better off keeping to their local tradition and scale, at which they are very good at, I'm reminded of a suburban landscape, colours of which neutralised by the cold, dry air. Only 48 hours after flirting with the feeling with I could just live there with a few very dear people to me (no matter how much and how far back I've known them), would I arrive in New York -- no longer than 48 hours in that magestic city, and it would immediately feel my natural home. And then Kuwait, the Middle East, the sand, the inefficiency, lack of transparency, covered all over in white and oil-dripped sand; another home of the sorts...?

And then I go back to this email... and I miss Toronto, and the dinner, and the walk... not so much the sore throat but the sweet goodbye.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

falls for the falls in fall

A non-descript diner on the corner of a three way junction in a US border town. It’s 11:56 AM, it’s Wednesday.

I grew up hearing about Niagara Falls; it’s one of those places that kept popping up on travel ads or TV shows in the 80s and 90s, and couldn’t escape the attention of those culturally Americani(z)ed.

The friendly conductor of the train walks into our ‘business class’ carriage and announces that we will soon be crossing over to the US side of Niagara River. “On the left hand side will be the best view you’ll get all day today”, warns he. “Oh, look, he’s getting a real good picture of that” exclaims the old lady to her husband, who are sat across the aisle from me.

They’re from Kansas City I learn, about 10 minutes later. She’s got long, grey hair, a very pale lady with ice blue, smiling eyes. Her man is carrying a cherry red stick, he gazes at me underneath his cap, his posture slightly scanted due to his hunched back. They set off from Kansas City to Los Angeles, up the West Coast to Vancouver, then across the maple leafed country to Toronto.

- Via Rail runs on CN tracks; we yielded 25-50 times and got delayed for 10 hours.
- You must be exhausted. Did it affect your connecting journey?
- No, we’re just tired. It’s just that, we never thought we’d stay in a hostel aged over 80. But, it was good.

They’ll get to Chicago before returning to Kansas City, to go back to their two dogs. “It’s easier looking after dogs than children at this age” claims the uncie. Aunties asks how many children I have: “no children, nor dogs” say I.

Border crossings have often been eventful for me. In fact, we were exchanging such stories over the weekend with E., N., Y. and C. on Sunday at Toronto’s Kensington Market.

I get way more questions asked at this rail crossing than I had at Logan Airport in Boston, last week. Train crossings are always curious things. Especially in this part of the world where they’re rarer, they’re almost archaic and have a vintage quality to them. Suspicions inversely correlate with diversity of nationalities that traverse them. It didn’t help that the border officer back in Boston forgot to stamp my passport. Officials had to go through security database to verify my first entry to the US before I hopped over to Canada. I had to pronounce “architecture” three times to the officers when asked where I worked and reveal I didn’t go to any architecture school — a phrase I had to keep repeating, back in Boston last week.

It meant I was left behind by the others and running out of time to leave the station for a quick meal but the conductor nevertheless waited for me at the ticket booth. He knew I wanted to ask if I could get a business seat for the remainder of the journey on the US side — a long, 9.5-hours ride, worth the meagre $33 difference. He thought otherwise: “I wouldn’t, if I were you — seats on the coach class are even wider, and all you get is extra water or juice in business”. I felt slight trepidation as the ticket cashier waited for my decision; I didn’t want to hurt their business upon the conductor’s advice... but little did the green-eyed, ruffled bearded , tall man care. “Let me know if you change your mind”.

I was joined by the blonde, young, on-call assistant conductor walking up the city’s high street to the diner the conductor sent us to, to get a $3 breakfast. She could be a character right out of Fargo. It’s her neat conductor’s suit, Midwest accent, and pale blue eyes against the backdrop of a small, suburban US border town with narrow roads and hanging traffic lights, all catering to my prejudice.

The diner is shut; I find another one up the road; she says she needs to get back so I foot it rapidly. It sits in the corner of a three-way junction. It’s called “The Why”. That must be the US equivalent of “Neden Urfa” that keeps bemusing us Turkish speakers wherever that restaurant name pops up.

Two thin, black ladies with braids wait at the door for a table and just before suggesting I claim an vacant bar seat, their three friends walk in. It’s the black kid’s birthday and they hug each other warmly; he’s a little embarassed while his two white friends behind him smile. “Didn’t you get my text? It says ‘sent’ here”. He scratches his right ear and the golden ear ring with a baffled, amused and happy look on his face.

The kind lady at the bar suggests I can get #2 breakfast and coffee with the only 4 US$ I have in my pocket. They don’t take card, nor will they accept my remaining 2 CAD$.

- The nearest ATM is by Pops, just up the road. Do you want to order after you get back?
- I’ve got a train to catch. Can I order #3 instead? I’ll leave my jacket, run there and back real quick.

And off to the races, I go. When the sun’s out, it’s that beatiful, clear, crisp, coldish winter weather out there. I get to the mall, get cash and even a bottle of maple syrup promised to A., my host in New York. When back, I find my breakfast covered over with an additional plate to keep it warm.

At the end of the bar table is the owner of the dig, wearing a cross over his neck, curiously observing my movements. Including the bacon in the mix might have been my saviour. As I turn further around, I catch the beautiful smile in that black young lady’s face I had seen at the door. They’re now joined by a party of 3 more people. I figure this was a suprise lunch for the birthday boy. Her smile makes me think of B. from high school. I haven’t seen her or spoken to her for 3 or 4 years.

I leave the nondescript diner on the corner of a three-way junction in a non-descript US border town. Back at the train platform, the conductor, the assistant conductor, an engineer and another man are chatting.

- Sorry that the diner was closed!
- No problem. I went further up the road to another one. It was pretty good.
- Oh. “The Why?” I was always wondering. How much did you pay?
- They have eggs, toast and bacon for $3.20 and coffee is 95 cents.
- See, that’s great. One time, I took the wife to NY; we stayed right by the Times Sq. Went to that famous diner where they shot Seinfeld episodes. They charge $18.99 for two toasts and coffee!!! And $3 for coffee refill.
- You should have walked away with the mug!
- We didn’t stay long.

Shortly after that, we left the station. We will be crossing New York State over the next 9 hours, rolling down Hudson and Harlem Rivers into Penn Station. I’ll be doing a lot of reading, preparing for Kuwait while post-industrial fields, empty mining quarries and leafy suburbs will fill the landscape.
When the Maple Leaf service arrives at its destination, I will emerge on to the streets of one of world’s densest cities.
The kids will be celebrating their friend’s birthday.
Readers will be leaving the town’s beautiful, brutalist library.
Diners will be sipping their milkshakes or coffees on a cold, crisp, early winter’s night.

8 November 2017, Wednesday
Niagara Falls, NY