Monday, June 1, 2009

Local Stop - Little Guyana - India in Queens, With a Caribbean Accent by Corey Kilgannon -

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Richmond Hill is home to a community of immigrants who descend from Indians sent to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations in the 19th century. Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

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The A train rumbles to a halt at the Ozone Park/Lefferts Boulevard stop in central Queens. To the east, a dozen blocks of Liberty Avenue unfold in a series of roti, sari and gold shops that make up the fragrant spine of Richmond Hill, a community of immigrants who descend from Indians sent to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations in the 19th century.

One must first reconcile the sight of saris and turbans with lilting English inflected with Creole. Then there is the juxtaposition of Hindu temples and gritty convenience stores, and thumping West Indian dance-hall music pouring out of religious shops. On weekend mornings, locals bring their black finches to Phil Rizzuto Park, formerly known as Smokey Oval Park, for chirp-off contests.

1 P.M. Eat lunch at Sonny’s Roti Shop, 118-06 Liberty Avenue, (718) 835-7255, right under the train station. Sonny’s may not be as well known as Brown Betty’s, Sybil’s or the Little Guyana Bake Shop, but the owner, Steven Rajkumal, a Trinidadian immigrant known as Sonny, is happy to introduce newcomers to the dishes. Order rotis ($5.50 for chicken, $8.50 for oxtail), or try snacks and desserts with cool-sounding names like jalibee and paymee ($2 each).

2 P.M. Within a block of the subway station, there are more shopping options than in some entire towns. You can buy a washer-dryer set at G&R Electronics, 114-04 Liberty Avenue, then walk next door to the Outlook Fashions gift shop, 119-03 Liberty Avenue, for a sitar, then take a safari through the crystal jungle of chandelier shops like B.Q. Gifts, 124-02 Liberty Avenue. Anjee Sherman, the owner of Anjees, 123-11 Liberty Avenue, (718) 843-6108, enjoys helping hip Western women try on saris, which start at $10 and can top $1,000 for wedding silks; her shop also carries small idols of Hindu gods, known as murties, worship offerings called pooja, and holiday fare like prasad.

3 P.M. Among the halal butchers and open-air markets stocked with South Asian spices are stores specializing in Guyanese gold, which is particularly glittery and is often used in ornate pendants.

4 P.M. At Rishi Video Palace, 103-44 124th Street, the owner, Raj Dutt, will guide you through the Bollywood classics and CDs of chutney and soca (think calypso on steroids, with singing in Hindi or English).

5 P.M. For tropical refreshment, sidewalk vendors on every other block sell sliced mango flavored with hot sauce, lemon and salt. At other stalls, a worker with a machete will chop open a coconut and stick in a straw for $3. Or, have your palm read by any of a half-dozen psychics; Marie Sanchez, between 128th and 129th Streets, is offering a $5 recession special. The sidewalk entertainment includes young men in cars with tinted windows and flashy metal rims creeping along Liberty Avenue, blasting soca, dance-hall or reggaeton music.

6 P.M. Relax at Rani Spa, 126-08 Liberty Avenue, (718) 641-7600, which offers eyebrow threading, mehndi (temporary henna tattoos on the hands) and shirodhara, a massage that includes the pouring of warm oil on the forehead ($50 for a half hour). The manager, Rumi Begum, will put you at ease, and the friendly locals sitting around the salon will make you laugh.

7 P.M. At the Ranch Restaurant and Bar of Guyana, 134-01 Liberty Avenue, (718) 206-2333, drink Red Stripe, Carib and Banks beer, or a Guyanese overproof rum known as High Wine while playing pool and watching cricket. Order fried shark or jerk chicken appetizers at the bar ($8). A short walk east is Club Tobago, 147-02 Liberty Avenue, (718) 658-9600, which on weekend nights is a hot dance hall popping with big crowds and live DJs.