An unplanned visit to Chicago, a city that is a remarkable mix of nature and modernity
In August 2015, Chicago turned out to be a refreshing and much-needed detour during my trip to the US that was essentially supposed to be a family reunion at my aunt’s place in Ohio. After meeting up with family and catching up on some reading (I had put some off for a time when I wasn’t rushing to meet work-related deadlines or wasn’t banging my head against GRE Math problems), I was officially out of things to do.
Utterly bored, I decided to write the names of cities in the US on pieces of paper -- no criteria, just off the top of my head -- shuffle them and pick one. I decided that I would just wander off to explore whatever I ended up with. New York, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago… Chicago!
"It’s a classier version of New York. I think you’ll like it," my mother had said on one occasion. With a vote already in favour of Chicago, I suggested that we change the itinerary in favour of the windy city.
The drive to Chicago is five hours long and on way you can see vast green fields, dotted at times with cosy little houses on both sides of the highway.
Chicago is a beautiful city with vast windy lanes. I took one day to just walk along the Michigan Avenue Bridge that crosses the Chicago River and admire the Magnificent Mile which is also where the famous Trump Towers are. Now that I think about it, back then, being a brown Muslim person from South Asia was not unnerving despite the global climate of polarisation along religious and ethnic lines. Not once did I feel an inkling of racism or the much-feared and now even more publicised phenomenon, Islamophobia.
The Magnificent Mile is an affluent locality on the city’s Michigan Avenue and it straddles the Chicago River all the way up to Oak Street on the Near North Side. It consists of numerous skyscrapers that have restaurants, cafes, shops and everything else that makes up a standard modern metropolitan city such as New York, London or even Dubai.
But, there is something markedly different about this city -- there is so much openness and positivity in the environment.
The design of the city is marvellous. The Chicago River passes through different parts of Chicago creating a beautiful urban space where nature meets modernity. To think, even the flow of the Chicago River was manually reversed due to a concern about the city’s water supply being jeopardised in the late 1800s.
Walking through the Mile in some respects made me realise how utterly wonderful it would have been to take a stroll along the Mall back home in Lahore; but alas, given the shrinking spaces for pedestrians to walk on and the erratic traffic situation, the walk would hardly help one unwind.
I had an unbelievably amazing time indulging in prawns and polenta at one of the myriad upscale restaurants that populate the city. The service was so good that I was comparing my home city with Chicago once again. The restaurant owners really cared about their clients. I mean it’s not much to expect good service? All it takes is food to be available on time and for it to be as close as possible to what is depicted in the menu.
Another great experience came out of my decision to be spontaneous and visit the Art Institute of Chicago. All sensible people would ideally research the time duration needed to traverse through the institute in its entirety and to plan ahead accordingly. I did not do so much. I visited the art museum merely two and half-hours before it closed.
I was enthralled to see the Buddhist and Hindu artefacts they had from India. To add to that, it was refreshing to see ‘From Pakistan’ engraved on the descriptions of such pieces. Another gem I found was within the photography section that offered a deep and scathing criticism on race relations and other societal attitudes and discrepancies within the United States.
However, the most liberating experience that I had in the city was to cycle along the Chicago Lakefront Trail. Cheerful people, wearing summery colours, cycling by me, and a steady wind blowing… it was absolutely perfect. I found myself catching the optimism in the air and getting rid of a lot of personal baggage. Spontaneity is rewarding at times!