Travel tips: New York

Travel tips: New York

I visited New York, Boston and Washington DC for the first time through March-April 2016, and here’s a few things I picked up during my two weeks there – if you haven’t been before, hopefully this might help!

Before I forget: if you’re interested in purchasing a mobile SIM while you’re there, I bought a T-Mobile SIM card with a data plan included for $43.

In general, travelling in New York is quite easy because of the subway station and the ability to walk or use an Uber, which is quite affordable. Plus, if you’re in Manhattan, your life is made easier by the grid system – you’ll always know where you are!

The subway system was great, and I used Google Maps for most part to map my journeys. Buying a week subway pass costs $32, and you can purchase these either on a manned counter or one of the kiosks. Pay attention to weekend service announcements for subway lines; they do change a bit, so you should keep a perked ear out for alternative methods of transport.

Always figure out whether you can walk, it might actually be faster.

I arrived at JFK airport, and from there wanted to get to West 30th. You can, for this journey, take the subway, but if you’re not keen on trying a new mode of public transport with luggage… I used a shuttle bus service called NYC Airporter. PSA: They don’t give you change at the counter, you have to pay by card. I paid $17 and got off at Penn Station. Anyway, at general traffic levels, this should take about 1-1.5 hours. It took me approximately that amount of time; it was pretty comfortable. I just relaxed and peered out the window until I arrived at Penn Station, then walked it up 10 minutes to where I needed to go. If you do need to take the train though, you’ll want to get on the AirTrain JFK Red to Jamaica, and then transfer to another line.

I mentioned Uber at the beginning of this post. Just to give you an idea of how much it costs there – we mostly used UberX and UberPool – journeying from W 48th to W 30th (approx 2.22km) with an UberX cost $9.39 with tax.

And if you’re heading from New York to Boston at any point and don’t want to take a flight, I used LimoLiner, which I found quite convenient. I paid $99 and got picked up at the Midtown Hilton on 53rd street at 6th Ave. I settled down, had some food and drink…and there was even a movie. A comfortable ride, it took about 4 hours to get to Boston Back Bay. The bus drops you off at 39 Dalton Street, which is in front of the Sheraton Back Bay and across from the Hilton Hotel Back Bay.

BONUS TIPS: In Boston, if you’re sticking to public transport, just FYI you can get a “Charlie Card” or a “Charlie ticket” at most stations and use the tram system, which is pretty efficient. And one more: in Washington DC, I mostly used Uber, and when I did use the metro, I purchased a “SmarTrip” card at the vending machine at one of the stations.

Do you have any travel tips for either New York, Boston, or Washington DC? Let me know – I’m hoping to go back for another visit!

Yas Waterworld, Abu Dhabi

The latest water park on the block in the UAE is the Yas Waterworld, Abu Dhabi.

I was extremely lucky to get to attend the grand opening on January 19, 2013. Getting there is quite easy, it’s about a one-hour-and-a-bit drive from the Dubai Media City end of town, and signs on the road will tell you how to get to Yas Island (Alternatively, I can tell you that Google Maps was spot on).

I was surprised at the size of the park; it was like a TARDIS … It looked small on the outside and was huge on the inside! It’s a lot to do with, I think, the way in which the rides sometimes intertwine around each other, making it look compact, but actually it has a lot of things for you to do.

I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat, so I was unknowingly pushed onto the insane rides – the Falcon Falaj and the Dawamma, the latter of which is MENTAL! You enter a 6-person raft in both, and basically get pushed off a cliff on a never-ending screamfest. In the Dawamma, there’s this huge barrel thing that you eventually end up in and it’s so big, you wonder how it’s possible to escape. Yet you emerge laughing out onto the pool. I LOVED IT. Top marks for those rides…I kept wanting to do them again despite being scared out of my wits every time.

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The other stuff is cool too – there’s the Liwa Loop, which I didn’t try but entails getting into a little capsule, and having a trapdoor released underneath your feet, with the momentum making you go feet-first into a loop and emerging gasping. Most people who came out from there ended up screaming, “I DID IT!” or “I SURVIVED!” or “WHAT WAS THAAAAAAT?” So. Pretty good then.

There’s a lazy river, and another lazy river filled with waves. There’s the snake slides, with the Rattler being the one that throws you into a mystical cavern with laser lights shooting all around you before releasing you from the creature’s mouth. Then there’s the slides where you clutch on to a sled-like thing and jump headfirst into the slides, almost as if you’re flying on a magic carpet. And then there are more slides, one called Halool’s Humps (Due to its shape) and another called Jebel Drop (it quite literally drops you down). And a roller coaster… and … a surfing area… and… a place for kids only…and…

My point is, there’s a lot to do at the water park. I was in a position where I didn’t have to deal with too many crowds at the event I went for, but with the awesomeness of the rides, I can see it being a wait for some of them. So be patient, you’ll have some fun regardless of queues.

I’d like to see some more food options at the waterpark though; maybe some pizza like my friend suggested?

If you’ve gone to Yas Waterworld, let me know what you thought…but till then, check out some of my pictures!

Check out the official website for all the information you need; the price of a general ticket for an adult is AED 225.

The Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour, Leavesden

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Around 10 days before I was due to fly out to the UK, I saw a tweet from @DaddyBird about a Hogwarts castle being built as part of a Harry Potter studio tour in the UK. Quickly looking it up, I was excited to find the attraction was opening up on March 31, 2012. And I’d be in the UK till April 6. Perfect.

Hey, not so fast missy. Things are rarely perfect.

To my utter dismay, when I looked at the official website, tickets were sold out till the end of April. What? I fired off an email to the customer service contact asking how I could overcome this obstacle, and they replied rather promptly (I think all their CS reps have been trained in the art of dealing with rabid Harry Potter fans). I was told I could either keep trying on the official website because sometimes slots do open up, or he pointed me to third-party operators that have a certain number of tickets for each day allocated to them already.

I decided to wait for the official website for a variety of reasons, and for 5-6 days I kept clicking, refreshing and shaking my fist at my laptop until…tickets were available on April 2!

I bought myself tickets faster than a motorist in Dubai can honk after a traffic light turns green.

On that day, I was so excited you’d think I was going to study at Hogwarts myself. Watford Junction is only 20 minutes away from Euston (and I think it’s £6 return with a 16-25 railcard), and there’s a bus that stops outside Watford Junction that takes people to the tour site (it’s a £2 return for that).

I won’t say much though, other than I’d advise you to buy the tickets for the earlier time slot during the day. I had the 3:30pm ones, and because I was listening to the audio guide narrated by Tom Felton (highly recommended btw) and taking so many photographs, I had to rush through the end bits, which I was very disappointed about.

But it was an absolutely amazing experience, and I ended up spending nearly £100 in the souvenir shop at the end of the tour. Absolutely amazeballs.

View all the photographs I took at the tour here!

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Travel around Chicago without technology

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In this technological age, is it possible to roam a completely new and alien city without access to the internet or phone, or with maps?

Yes.

As I stood inside Grand Union Station, Chicago, watching my carefully laid plans crash and tumble all around me, I knew I was in trouble. I had carefully planned out routes from there to various spots around the city and had printed those maps out for myself. But a series of unfortunate circumstances led to all those plans becoming null and void.

Another problem: even with a smartphone and an iPad I was lost. I didn’t want to use roaming on my phone, and did not have access to a US number. In short, I was bereft of a phone and the internet. Even though I had some money on my phone to call Dubai, who was going to navigate me around Chicago?!

Even though my maps were useless, the addresses on it were correct. I couldn’t take any of the buses I’d so carefully written down because the departure and arrival points in the city had changed completely for me.

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After losing my way to the famous Giordano’s but finding it and stuffing my face, I headed over to a bus stop near the Union Station. I figured out from the map stuck there how to get to John Hancock Center and hopped on. The bus driver (a very large female) hit my stereotype of being rude – I didn’t know how much the fare was when I was getting on the bus (A single fare is $2.25 if you must know) and I couldn’t figure out the coins so I took an absurdly long amount of time to fish out the change from my wallet. I confirmed the bus would go where I wanted it to and that was it. I sat down and let the adventure begin!

Watching the sights from the window was a lot of fun. I’m certain I looked like a wide-eyed tourist, so I tried to tone down my out-of-town look. I remember passing a café called Atwood Café and writing down what was written on the sign outside: “We refuse to grow old gracefully, please pardon our appearance while we get some ‘work’ done.” Love it!

Once I reached the correct bus stop, I hopped off and walked towards the John Hancock Center (this was easy – it’s a really tall building…can’t miss it ;)).

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Went in and had a lovely time upstairs; took loads of photographs, and listened to the audio guide about the buildings around me. When that audio guide started, I could swear it was David Schwimmer (who played Ross Geller in FRIENDS)…then later on I Googled it and realized I was right! Woohoo.

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Visitors get to go up to the 96th floor (with a recording playing in the elevator every time you go up or down) to see a panoramic view of the city. There’s a lounge there to relax and eat if you want to, along with a souvenir shop (where I bought my Chicago fridge magnets). I was there during the day; I can only imagine how absolutely gorgeous it also looks at night with the city lights around around. I took the general admission pass for $15, but there are other options you can look into.

 

Images from the 96th floor:

 

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After that, I went to The Cheesecake Factory, conveniently located at the base of the building, where I went to cheesecake heaven. Cannot wait for it to open up in Dubai soon!

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This is the part where I got a bit lost. I wanted to go to the Navy Pier and take an architectural boat tour but I had no idea how to get there from where I was. Remember, there was no internet, no phone, nothing. Just me and the big windy city. I asked the attendant at the John Hancock Center and she told me where I could go to get a bus to the Navy Pier. Okay. I managed to get lost nevertheless and after wandering around random streets off the Magnificent Mile for 10 minutes, I entered Hershey’s Chocolates (822 North Michigan Avenue) and said I needed some help.

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Boy, did I get help. A slim girl with braided hair with the energy of many people packed into one, Kierra, came outside the store with me. I explained where I wanted to go and she took me near the bus stop, told me which bus number I needed (Pretty sure it was number 66), and explained to me what I needed to tell the bus driver (“Make sure it’s going to Navy Pier! Ask him ya hear?”) She was so wonderfully friendly; told me to take care of myself and be careful (I think she figured I was a babe lost in the woods). Thank you Kierra…you made me smile and I still remember your help and concern with great fondness.

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Finally reached Navy Pier…and missed the architecture boat tour by 15 minutes. The next one was at 4:45pm and would be back only at 5:45pm. I didn’t know what traffic was like from Navy Pier back to the Union Station – my train to the airport was at 7pm and I was too afraid to take the chance that the boat might be back late, or there would be traffic. In addition, I had to pick up my luggage from the station locker first, and had no idea which platform the train would leave from so I wanted to get back for 6:30pm at least. Too many variables, too many ifs and buts. Instead, I walked down the Navy Pier till the end and it was absolutely gorgeous. You could see the skyline of Chicago from there. There were shops and rides for entertainment. Loads of boat tour companies. By the end of the pier, the wind hits you something fierce. Till then I hadn’t bothered wearing a jacket but when I got to the end, it became really cold and in-my-face.

 

Pics from Navy Pier: 

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Once I was done, I headed back to the bus terminal just off Navy Pier, asked someone which bus goes to the train station and hopped in. By this time I was a bus fare expert… $2.25 ka-ching! The road back was equally fun. Passed the NBC building and saw their store downstairs with Dunder Mifflin merchandise among other things. Was extremely tempted to buy them, but decided to stay on the bus to get to the station.

IMAGES: A Borders store emptying out | Random street | Dunder Mifflin at NBC | Sticky Fingers Gourmet Popcorn

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And naturally, things had to go wrong! The train was delayed by about 30-45 minutes…I waited on the cold bench near the platform where the train was supposed to arrive and people-watched. Women on heels too tall for anyone’s feet to survive. A young man wearing shiny silver leather latex-y looking trousers, uggs and orange socks. Young Indian students. Businessmen with their official looking bags and more. A woman wearing block platforms clunking instead of running her way across the floor. So much to see.

The ticket from the Union Station to the O’Hare airport was $4 one-way (North-Central service, Metra Rail) and once you get off at the airport station, there’s a shuttle bus to take you to another point where you take a metro train to the terminal. Once I finally got there after all the delays, I met this lovely guy at the metro train area who asked me where I was from. I said Dubai. He asked if they were all islands. I said no that’s just The World and the Palms. Then he was asking me about the weather and his eyes popped out when I said summer highs are near 50C, and winter it’s about 20ish usually.

At the end of it, I safely reached O’Hare airport and got online after over 12 hours of no real contact with anyone whatsoever.

And you know what? I survived.

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Exploring Dubai from the Creek and open waters

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That  view up there…almost didn’t happen.

I wanted to do something I’d never done before. And it hit me: I’d never gone on the water ferry before. I’d heard of them, but never travelled on them myself. I started looking it up on the RTA website and found two options: one that leaves from the Creek and goes out into open waters, circles near the Burj Al Arab and comes back, and another that goes around the Dubai Marina and then out near the Atlantis and back.

The decision was easy: Old Dubai wins.

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But to actually get on the boat? The website had three things to say to me: the main page said the ferry left from Al Seef. One of the PDFs there said Al Seef again, but the second PDF there said Al Ghubaiba. Two against one, I thought. Surely that means Al Seef. I judged incorrectly. I got to the Al Seef water station at 10:40am with 20 minutes to spare…and the sign there said the ferry has been shifted to Al Ghubaiba! One of the staff members there said there isn’t a direct water taxi from Al Seef to Al Ghubaiba so I needed to go there on my own if I could.

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I ran back to the car. I blindly drove towards Al Ghubaiba, wondering where on earth I could park. I hit traffic near the Dubai Museum at the Al Fahidi Fort. Naturally. The clock was ticking. I reached the Al Ghubaiba water bus station…but there was no parking. I glanced at the clock… 10:54am. I had 6 minutes left. The next trip was at 5pm and I wanted to go now! I drove on. WHAT’S THAT? Parking! I snagged a spot on the road which on the opposite side of Carrefour, near the Al Fahidi Metro Station.

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I started running. Clock said 10:57am. THREE MORE MINUTES! I got to the ferry, feeling very much like the only woman around for miles. I ran up the pier, and the staff member said I needed to buy a ticket from the ticket office and he pointed behind me. Never mind…I ran back to the office and told him NOT to let the boat go without me.

Fifty dirhams (for silver class) later, I ran back and hopped on to the boat at 11:00. I was in.

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And once the boat slowly chugged on its way, I was out the back the whole time, feeling the wind on my face, the water spray hit me and since it was raining that day (the first day of Dubai winter rains for 2011!) watched gloomy clouds fly over me. Definitely a fun experience and you get to see the skyline of Dubai in a whole new way.

Scroll down for more pictures I took with my cameras and further down for pictures I tweeted from my phone.

Here are some pictures:

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And a look at my tweets with pictures from the time:

View the story “My experience with the Dubai Ferry” on Storify]

Going abroad to study? – Part 1

It’s that time of the year again. When younglings (no I haven’t been watching Star Wars lately, although I should) head off to greener, often colder shores (this cold bit applies if you’re living in the Middle East) to pursue their education. I remember all too well how it was for me two years ago – where has the time gone? – and I’m suddenly filled with the need to share what I experienced, and more often than not, learned.

Remember, I’m talking about my experience in going to the UK, so some things may not apply to other countries.

1. Got that stamp in your passport?

I’m hoping by now you’ve already gotten your visa sorted, if not actually having that stamp in your passport, but at least an appointment with whoever you need to have an appointment with to get it done. For the UK visas, it normally takes anywhere between 2 weeks to a month, which also depends on the number of applications that need to be processed. August is peak time for this because UK universities start their new academic year sometime in September. If you’re filling out a paper form, photocopy the original and fill out that form first. Recheck it to make sure you haven’t made any mistakes and then only fill out the original, precious, all-important form. You do NOT want to make a mistake in that one. Submit all the documents the main formand the appendix forms (yes, there used to be appendix forms last time I checked, so make sure there is/isn’t one) ask for. If you’re not sure whether a certain document is needed, take it anyway. It’s better to be over-prepared than found wanting, as it reflects badly on you. When it comes to the UK student visa, don’t be alarmed with the wait and the fact that they don’t tell you whether you got the visa or not. Settle yourself when your passport is sent back to you, and calmly look through its pages as opposed to what I did: tearing open the envelope frantically, flipping through the pages like a deranged woman, then screaming when you see the visa stamped firmly in your passport, sealing your fate for the next year (or two. Or three. However long your course is).

2. Mentally preparing yourself

Legally, you’re ready to go. Mentally? At 22, it was the first time I was going abroad, leaving my parents, and staying on my own. I was terrified and excited at the same time. Read up on anything about the university, the accomodation and the course. It helps give you an idea of what you need to look out for. For example, I think my room size was listed as being 12 square metres. I have no concept of size…so how could I make sense of that? Easy. Go to IKEA. No, I haven’t gone mad. The display rooms in IKEA list the size of the room, so all I did was find a room that was listed as being the same as my prospective dorm room, and I just went and stood in it for a bit. My Mom thought I was a bit cuckoo, but it helps. It gives you an idea of the space you’ll be living in for the next (few) year(s). Culture shock is another aspect if you’ve never been to the place where you’re going before. Again, read and research. I cannot emphasise that enough. Another thing is: use Facebook. I found my future flatmate on a Facebook group for my accomodation and it helped to connect with her before I flew out there. Now we’re tight friends, and I’m all the happier for it.

3. Flying out there

Hah. Good luck moving your life to a new place with a 20kg (or 30kg if you’re flying Emirates, which I was. Woohoo!) limit. I cheated. I took my 30kgs and a few days later my father arrived because luckily, he was in UK on a business trip. Now for those whose parents aren’t going on business trips that coincide with the time you move there…what can be done? Not much, I’m sorry to say. Except prioritise what you need for your luggage on the flight, and if there are any other essentials, ship them over.

4. How do I find where I have to go?! *clutches hair in agony*

I was studying in the lovely city of Sheffield, and I flew from Dubai to Manchester. Now, did I really want to take a train from the airport to Sheffield, then tackle a cab in a strange, new land, where many people seemed to call me ‘duck’ and ‘love’? I opted for the best service a university can offer (if you’re in London, then don’t bother with this…you just get off at Heathrow, having pre-booked a black cab – this website is awesome – and you’re okay) … the Meet-and-Greet service.

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We were received at the airport by student reps, who then guided us to a massive coach (you’re in UK now, it’s not bus anymore) where the helpful driver effortlessly threw my over-sized bag into the luggage hold. Then I was treated to a lovely drive from Manchester to Sheffield through the Snake Pass.

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Once we got to Sheffield, we got off at the Student Union, where people living in the same accomodation areas were bundled off together. Once you find your accomodation, it’s a piece of cake.

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Except for the lugging-the-luggage-on-your-own bit.

5. Actually inside the place where you’ll live in a strange, new land

The dorm room!!! I’d booked a room in a flat with six rooms, all of which were en-suite (a fact that gets me a ribbing even now…apparently it’s posh to book an en-suite as opposed to sharing. But I can’t share my toilet unless I know/trust someone…!!!). I walked into my 12-metre-square room, took one look at the bareness of it all, felt alone, collapsed on the mattress and sobbed my heart out. This is what not to do.

Covent Garden Market

 

I only managed to snatch the end of this exuberant performance, but it would seem that Covent Garden over the weekend is a hotbed of talented artists and it was quite an engrossing time I spent there. Anyone who’d like a relaxed and entertaining day out should take advantage of any sunny weather coming their way and head over to the Covent Garden market. No disappointments, I assure you.

 

Note: Much thanks to @cookiemonster82 for suggesting we should wander in that area. Both @masarat and I loved it, I should think.

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap

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I’ve always wanted to see Agatha Christie’s play, The Mousetrap, and I decided now was a good time as any. I toddled off to St. Martin’s Theatre (map), situated towards the end of the picturesque Seven Dials area of London, with tickets for the upper circle. As a matter of interest, it was the 24,217th performance of the play that I was about to watch. I managed to get the front row seat, which was extremely amenable to watching the show without bobbing heads in front of me.

The curtain rose, the lights went out and we heard a scream… the show was on!

I’ve only ever been to one theatre production before this one, but I must say, St Martin’s Theatre was absolutely beautiful. The interiors were mostly made out of woody browns and lush, velvety reds. The seats were a bit tight (but then again, I didn’t take off my thick coat) but comfortable.

The basic premise of the play circles around 7 strangers stuck in Monkswell Manor Guest House, cut off from the rest of the world due to excessive snow, and their numbers become 8 once the enterprising Sergeant Trotter (Marcus Webb – superb actor) skis in. He tells them that he has come to investigate a murder, which took place in London and explains why he has reason to believe the answer lies in that very house. The play, performed in two acts, sees the unravelling of the mystery.

I shall not spoil the surprise here, although those who own copies of the book or impatient Googlers might already know the ending. Personally, I have the book, although I’d read it only once and around 8-10 years ago. That was why I happily went into the theatre, blissfully ignorant of what was about to happen. And that, I think, added to the quality of the show. In addition, at the end of the show, the actors kindly request the audience to become their partners in crime and not reveal the ending to future theatre-goers.

The performances were great – with the quirky Christopher Wren (played by Ashley Cook) capturing everyone’s attention and funny bone. I loved the intensity of Ann Wenn who played Mollie Ralston; she was superbly convincing. You’d think people might get bored of performing the same lines and actions repeatedly, but there was no sign of fatigue amongst these fine actors. I was riveted at every turn.

It’s one of those plays which I’d gladly love to see again.

29 countries, 15 years and two interviews

I was lucky to be an editorial intern at INK Publishing during the coming together of the November 2010 issue of easyJet’s inflight magazine, Traveller.

I was able to interview Freeride World Champion Aurelien Ducroz and Grammy award winning producer, musician and DJ Paul Van Dyk and write their stories up.

In addition, I compiled the nibs for the icons on the cover of this issue. That was actually loads of fun simply because I got to learn so many new things about landmarks and places I never knew before.

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Download this file

Enjoy reading!

 

Going back to the Taj

I giggled and ran across the soft, plush carpet covering what I could only imagine was rich, old oak flooring and sat at the window booth. I looked out to the blue water and the teeming pavement below. The salty smell of the ocean was separated from me by the glass windows in ornate frames.

And then, a luxury item was placed in front of me.

I was 6 and staring at the best chocolate truffle cake I had ever had.

When I was younger, my Fui (father’s sister) used to take me to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel , Bombay, to a place called The Sea Lounge to have their sinful chocolate truffle. I’m 23 and every time I go back to Bombay, she still takes me there. A tradition now.

The Taj was a part of my growing up years, so on November 26 2008, I sat, along with millions others, staring at my television, shocked, horrified and broken. At the end of the painful carnage across the Taj, the Oberoi and more locations, a city was wounded. A nation attacked.

Is it selfish that I’m thankful that no family or close friends were hurt? Perhaps. My cousin’s classmate’s parents (acquaintances of ours) perished. The same cousin lost a classmate to the senseless killings as well. Pain all around.

The last time I was in the Taj before 26/11 (dubbed “India’s 9/11”) was the same year in August. I sat in the Sea Lounge then, not knowing people would die there a mere 3 months later.

I returned to the Taj two months back. The changes were glaring with a hint of the lurking menace. A staggering number of police cars all around, with high security reminiscent of airports before we could enter the hotel. Inside, the refurbishments ensured the hotel retained its earlier grandeur. But subtle differences were notable to people who had been there many a time.

Alas, the Sea Lounge was closed by the time we got there so we settled for Shamiana, the 24-hour open café in the hotel.

My return to the Taj was nostalgic, with only a hint of what had happened there almost 2 years ago.