Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Traveler's guide to Philadelphia

I often receive emails from distant acquaintances who have decided to travel to Philadelphia on vacation and have come to know, probably from another distant acquaintance, that I live there. The email will usually be very effusive. More effusive than this person ever was in real life with me. And it will usually go something like, "Hiiiiiii!!!! gawker, do you remember me, we were cellmates in prison, I was the one who snitched on you and let the warden know about your plan to escape through the washbasin. Anyways, I am traveling to Philadelphia this summer. If I were visiting you in Philadelphia, which I'm not, where in Philadelphia would you take me to?"

The problem is, it is somewhat difficult to come up with a Philly itinerary on the spur of the moment. Some have chosen the production of tourist brochures as a career choice and I am not one of them. However, since Philadelphia appears to be quite a popular destination among Indians and since I happen to live in its vicinity, I took it upon myself to compile a list of what Philadelphia has to offer. Let us begin in the suburbs.

Valley Forge Historic Park

About 10 to 15 miles north-west of Philadelphia lies Valley Forge National Historic Park. Here is where General George Washington camped out with his troops in the winter of 1777 while pondering an attack on Philadelphia, which had been captured by the British and whose residents were now being forced to "smoke fags" and spell color with a "u".

The highlight of your tour of the park will be the hundred or so revolutionary era huts scattered about the park in which the miserable continental army camped out in horrible conditions, all the while, no doubt blaming Mexican immigrants for their plight. Another feature of this park are the massive herds of free-roaming deer who, due to the no-hunting policy instituted within the park, have reciprocated by utilizing every free moment to reproduce.

Of course, the reason the good general and his army had to camp out in this hellhole, however pristine, was something that took place a couple of years before in the city of Philadelphia, specifically, in Independence Hall.

Independence Hall

If you are aware of the existence of Philadelphia without having actually lived here, then the following is probably the extent of your knowledge of this city. Here is where the declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, which propelled the American colonists into a revolutionary war against Great Britain. In this brick building, you will visit the great hall where the actual Declaration of Independence was signed. Here, you will also discover that the great hall that you are standing in might not actually have been the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed. And, the furniture on display in the hall might not have been the furniture from that time. Even the windows you see from inside cannot be seen from outside, which means that even the fucking windows are fake. And the guide providing you with all this information is probably not a guide either but just some homeless guy who wandered inside with the intention of stealing wallets, but after finding out it was full of Indians, abandoned his plan.

Basically, apart from a general GPS proximity to the area, the current Independence Hall probably has no resemblance to the original Independence Hall. Heck, who the fuck knows if there even was an Independence Hall?

But you should go there regardless, because that's Independence Hall, bitches. It's not the building but what it stands for that's important, namely, Big Macs and Walmart. Also, it's got great public restrooms which by itself makes it an excellent tourist destination in Philly. It is also very close to the Liberty Bell.

The Liberty Bell

If Philadelphia were a burger franchise, it would distribute its bell-shaped burgers in a container shaped like a bell by a person wearing a bell for a cap, ringing a bell to let you know your order's ready. So, what is this famous bell that everybody keeps talking about?

The Liberty Bell is a unique relic from the revolutionary era. Its primary claim to fame is the giant crack that festers upon one of its sides. It's secondary claim to fame is that it was rung on July 8 1776 to summon the good citizens of Philadelphia for the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Of course, like every other piece of Philadelphia history, historians doubt that this actually happened. But that doesn't matter. For this bell has The Crack.

The Liberty Bell is the proud owner of the second-most famous crack in the world, the first belonging to Jennifer Lopez. It was a product of amazing 18th century American workmanship that caused it to crack during its very first test-ringing. Even after this debacle, people kept ringing the bell on festive occasions such as George Washington's birthday, Lafayette's return to Philadelphia and Alexander Hamilton's death. Ultimately, the growth of the crack caused the bell to become unusable, after which the primary purpose it served was in drawing tourist money to Philadelphia.

While visiting the Liberty Bell, you need to make sure that you are standing on the crack side of the bell. You see, the crack is only visible from one side. This is very important. If you visit the Liberty Bell but do not get to see its famous crack, it would be akin to traveling to New York and failing to get a blow job from a crack whore under the Brooklyn Bridge. Why, if you fail to see the fucking crack, you might as well not visit the damn thing at all, and merely get drunk at the Triumph Brewery instead.

The Triumph Brewery

Regardless of whether you visit the Liberty Bell or not, you should still visit the Triumph Brewery in Old City. Here, on the banks of the Delaware river (which you cannot see from the brewery per se) you will be able to sample the best of Philadelphia's microbrews. However, if you are planning to eat here, it would help if you are a person of small appetite. While I would not say that the portions have been specifically designed to fit comfortably inside a 5 year old's belly, well, why not, I would indeed say that. But the good news is, this area is well-endowed with other eating joints that are sure to satisfy the palate of every ethnicity. So drink your fill here and for lunch, go someplace else, say, the Reading Terminal Market.

The Reading Terminal Market

If the city of Philadelphia were a brothel, the Reading Terminal Market would be its flagship whore. The Reading Terminal Market is located right next door to the Market East train station in Central Philly.The history of this market can be traced back to mid-19th century Philadelphia when there used to be a number of open-air markets serving the city. After these open-air markets became dirty and unhygienic, city officials decided to bring all that dirt and lack of hygiene indoors and that is how the Reading Terminal Market came into existence.

The market has a number of shops selling all kinds of stuff, from produce to books to hippy alternative medicine to pigs feet to bluefish collars and parrotfish cheeks. While browsing through the market, the slightly depressing thought might pass through your mind that somewhere in the ocean, collarless bluefish are pointing and laughing at cheekless parrotfish. Dismiss it. Remind yourself of all those brainless humans who have it worse. The market is also chock-full of eating joints that offer the cuisine of a multitude of nationalities and ethnicities. Be aware that being violently hungry is a necessary condition for visiting the Reading Terminal Market. Going there on a full stomach would be akin to watching a pornographic movie after masturbating twice in rapid succession. It simply serves no purpose.

Since this place is usually packed to the brim, following a few simple rules of navigation would make your life a lot easier. Most importantly, if you're in a crowd of people that appears not to have moved at all within the last ten minutes, it is highly likely that you're standing in a line of some sort. It is then time to gently start nudging people aside, accompanied, if necessary with the threat of physical violence and move along.

Also, when you are moving from point A to point B, forget about the crow and how it prefers to fly in a straight line. A crow faces very little traffic in the air. You, on the other hand, will. So another rule of navigation in Reading Market is, always travel the perimeter route, which is usually less trafficked. The reason for that being the occasional garbage piles and the stink of death. But if you are from India, you should have little trouble dealing with it.

There are a number of such pockets of death scattered about the market where you might suddenly experience an overwhelming desire to faint. Just keep moving, and it will be replaced by pleasanter smells. The key is to keep moving.

Now, since I am a paranoid Indian from a country where being paranoid is necessary for staying alive and in good financial health, every time I am in a crowd, I keep checking my wallet. In Reading Terminal Market, despite the crowd, there is very little need to do so. Most of the people here are hungry and are searching for food. They have no use for wallets. However, if you are carrying a sandwich in your pocket, it might be worthwhile to check up on it periodically.

And as far as possible, try not to carry a frying pan with you. The temptation to hit people with it will be too strong to overcome.

Although the Reading Market gives you a large number of eating options, one of the best ones is the Rib Stand that sells fully cooked baby back and beef short ribs. Here, you will find heaven in the short term. And for adult beverages, you may check out the beer garden in the center of the market.

Note : The Rib stand does not have a place to sit and eat. Therefore, you will have to hijack the seating space of some other eating establishment. To avoid finding yourself in an awkward situation with the management of said establishment, make sure that it has a sufficiently eclectic menu so that your foreign foodstuffs may blend in.

In the unlikely event that nothing in Reading Terminal Market appeals to the gourmet in you, you have a final option to fall back on. The mighty South Philly cheesesteak.

The Mighty South Philly Cheesesteak

The mighty South Philly Cheesesteak inhabits the southern end of the city of Philadelphia. It may also be found hanging around in various other pockets of the city, but in order to experience the racially pure version, you will have to travel to South Philly.

You have a couple of choices : Pat's King of Steaks or Geno's steaks. These two restaurants are located on the same street, facing each other. Rumor is, they have a long history of rivalry that includes steak fights where foot-soldiers from each establishment battle each other with hunks of raw rib-eye and survivors feast on the spoils of victory all night until the breaking light of dawn.

I recommend you try both. Like this guy did.

The fact of the matter is, until you've tasted a Philly cheesesteak, you haven't really experienced Philadelphia. Or a clogged artery.