I capture moments while travelling because I do not trust my memory. However, this weekend was different. What the human eye perceives in real time can almost never be recollected in flat photographs. The camera struggled in my fastened, floral backpack. For the first time, a close Mexican-Pakistani friend, Lali, was visiting my current home, New York. She was probably the second best thing that happened to me in rural Oman two years ago. (The first being my progress in Arabic fluency. Bound to happen when you can’t speak to anyone, literally anyone, in English for weeks on end during your stay!)
Two days are not enough to catch up on the past 730 days or to explain the vibrancy of NYC. Or the air that is shared by American Dreamers and the homeless sleeping outside the beautiful Columbia University buildings. So, I became a tourist with Lali, eight fresh pairs of eyes exploring the city together. (Both she and I wear glasses or contacts.) Little did I know that while keeping my camera (mostly) away, my eyes would experience the city in a way different from all the years lived here combined:
Day 1. 12:30PM. It all started with a decent cup of tea in the East Village. The Strand is a haven for book-lovers, founded ninety years ago. I followed Lali and we happened to encounter a section I hadn’t noticed when perusing in the past because my mission usually involves poetry/travel/fiction. Across us stood a small collection dedicated to tea and coffee. For the past few weeks, I had been brainstorming gift ideas for a Chinese co-worker who shares my love for tea and sarcasm. And here was the perfect gift, a satirical book on the history of tea and recipes for baked goods fit for an invigorating conversation, peppered with witty banter.
Day 2. 6:10PM. If only someone could serve us a warm cup of tea right now! Our hats and mittens were not sufficient to shield us from the icy evening wind attacking our shivering bodies. However, the cold didn’t stop the African-American man in Times Square dressed in a light jacket. He bellowed at the tourists focused on clicking the perfect selfie, “Let me introduce you to Jesus! He can save you! He can bring us up!”
Day 1. 5:25PM. We went up indeed. Not to the skies, but to the top of the Empire State Building. The sun disappeared behind the skyscrapers as the Hudson River came to life. I looked below for the dancing fountains, my soul transported back to when I was studying in Dubai. I was at the top of Burj Khalifa with my circle of five international students: American, Danish, Egyptian, Nigerian, and Pakistani. Diversity, that’s what made my soul come to life. Diversity, the most precious gift New York had offered me.
Day 2. 1:40PM. Here, religions, ethnicities, languages, identities came together, befriending and clashing and growing simultaneously. A man in his forties in Central Park protectively carried a wedding veil, while two photographers guided the groom (wearing a Kipa, the Jewish cap, I learned after moving to the US) and his bride, dressed in an angelic gown, white flowers embroidered on her shoulder and arms. The exciting start of a new life. The picture of the couple and the entourage brought a sad smile to my lips.
Day 1. 2:30PM. The most magical works of art are paintings, moving ones that encapsulate humans laughing and crying and walking and sitting with dogs and without. When god uses his brushes and then frames His creations in windows taller than us. I had just finished praying at the New York University’s Global Center. My third time here, my first to notice the life-sized painting through the windows overlooking Washington Square Park.
Day 2. 12:10PM. A girl with dark-brown curls and the perfect mascara seated at the table behind us at Sarabeth’s scrunched her eyebrows. Her eyes focused on her iPhone’s camera, hovering at an angle. Once satisfied that justice had been served to their brunch, she allowed her partner to begin eating. Patient, but starving, he immediately attacked the omelette with his fork.
Day 2. 1:20PM. Atop the infamous horse carriage in Central Park, a woman rode like a queen while the driver watched the road ahead. Her fingers were clutching an iPad, religiously videotaping the view from her elevated position. Around her smiling eyes appeared thin wrinkles; perhaps, she was Skyping with a loved one abroad and enjoying the experience with him. Ah, the possibilities. My eyes lingered a few seconds more on the purple blanket she had wrapped around herself. Was it as warm as the one I had?
Day 2. 3:50PM. An elderly Asian man was jogging in Central Park at the same speed at which Lali and I were powerwalking. All three of us were watching a father on a bicycle encouraging his son to pedal faster on his tricycle. Slowly, the Asian man picked up his pace and ran in front of us. Three generations in a single snapshot.
Day 2. 2:55PM. Outside an apartment building, a little girl bid farewell for the day to her best-friend-forever, who lived in this building. The little girl’s father was placing a bike helmet on her head, preparing for the bicycle ride back home.
Day 2. 4:25PM. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I found my inspiration to write this post: a little girl wearing a red skirt sat on the floor, a drawing book in her laps and an open box on her right filled with color pencils. Her only care in the world right now was to capture what her heart saw in the shelf of oddly shaped pots. Papa often chukled to Mama in Kachi, “We didn’t know our little girl in the red skirt would accomplish so much. Do you remember the tears wouldn’t stop flowing from her eyes on her first day of school because she didn’t want to leave us for the day?”
Day 2. 4:29PM. I would forever be a little-girl-in-the-red-skirt for my parents. I wondered what adults would give in exchange for a few moments as a child again. Isn’t that the most important struggle of life? To live responsibly, yet allow time every day to follow one’s heart? My thoughts took a backseat as my eyes followed the hairpin of a woman in her early thirties. Her long, silky, black hair was secured together with a pin shaped as a row of seven small color pencils.
Day 2. 4:36PM. I pointed out the cool hair pin to Lali and we followed the lady to another area of the museum. She led us to a 1920s French marble carving called The Angel of Death and Sculptor. The Angel holds a bouquet of poppies, symbolizing eternal sleep, as she interrupts the sculptor’s work. To me, the memorial signified the passing of time, instead of its cessation. The last time I saw this memorial was three years ago, when I was a third-year college student, worrying about getting into graduate school. And here we were again, I had recently accepted an offer from a PhD program that had won my heart even before I had first started applying to programs.
Day 2. 8:05PM. Like the sculptor, wasn’t it crucial to continue pursuing to the last breath what excites your heart? To live to the fullest? I finished reading on the train on the way back home, having hugged Lali good bye, with hopeful plans of meeting in another city in a couple of months. The weekend ended as my eyes drank in Rupi Kaur’s words:
i don’t know what living a balanced life feels like
when i am sad
i don’t cry i pour
when i am happy
i don’t smile i glow
when i am angry
i don’t yell i burn
the good thing about feeling in extremes is
when i love i give them wings
but perhaps that isn’t
such a good thing cause
they always tend to leave
and you should see me
when my heart is broken
i don’t grieve