Oct 3, 2008

Travel - A Journey to New York

Indulekha Aravind

The thought of going abroad for the first time — that too, to the Big Apple – sure was exciting. But I was also apprehensive. My fears ranged from getting trampled on by busy New Yorkers at traffic signals to being too jet lagged and disoriented to realize that I had accidentally stumbled onto a gangsters' huddle and getting coshed in the bargain– the last courtesy an imaginatively optimistic colleague. I was thankfully proved wrong on all of the above. I had the time of my life! First of all, what better way to fly into the epicentre of finance (currently a bit quaky I admit!) and the high life than in the lap of luxury— a business class seat on the inaugural flight of the brand-new Emirates A380 from Dubai. For a cattle-class type, it was a revelation to see how The Other Half (read Fendi-toting, Chanel-wearing)lives – and jets around. The airline’s business class lounge at Dubai airport set the tone, with its lavish spread of Arab and Western fare, liquor and comfy pre-flight couches. Needless to add, its Delhi lounge paled in comparison. The super jumbo took off around 20 minutes late, to the applause of passengers and relief of tense Emirates topshots also on board. The seats were oh-so-roomy, lots of place to stow bags and the like (do we Indians travel light anywhere, let alone trans-Atlantic?) and a 17" TV screen to while away the hours, partaking of refreshments from Evian water to beer and juice placed on a little shelf. Besides a nice choice of movies, music and news channels, there was even a bar and 'lounge' though the latter comprised just two longish couches! Though the much-touted shower and spa is only for First Class passengers, I was still left wondering how I could ever contemplate sitting further back on airplanes any more after this club class flight!. Even the landing was a never-before and never-again experience: the media-magnet A380 touched down at JFK Airport (in just 13-and-a-half hours instead of the usual 14!) to be greeted by sprays of water from a ceremonial guard of New York fire engines! So, with a slightly bumpy landing, there I was—in New York! Then came the dreaded US immigration process. I whiled away time in the seemingly never-ending queue just observing the sheer variety of people standing with me and hearing the cacophony of different languages. That, by the way, was something I came to love about New York: it's amazingly cosmopolitan, melting-pot nature. I was prepared for a grouchy, harried interviewer but the officer turned out to be polite, friendly even, and waved me through in a few minutes. Then came one of the only hitches in the trip. My luggage – that was supposed to come on the business class conveyor belt — was nowhere to be found. It finally appeared with the economy luggage but by the time I retrieved it, the people was to go with to the hotel had left. This was not something I wanted after a long flight and that too in an 'alien' place.

Finally, after many calls, two hours of waiting and some help from a friendly New Yorker, I managed to reach my hotel on Broadway,right next to Times Square. When I saw the bright lights and buzz of the 'cross-roads of the world' I pretty much forgot that I was tired and disgruntled. I just stood and stared... The neon lights, the crowds converging and then dispersing to and from all corners, the skyscrapers—it was all exactly like I'd pictured it and seen countless times in movies and on TV.

One of the best ways to see New York seemed to be by the ubiquitous, double-decker, hop-on, hop-off buses. Tour operators run quite a few of these. I found them to better than normal tours because they gave me more freedom to decide how much time I wanted to spend, where. When I was done with a spot, I just went to the stop I got off from and waited for the next one to continue the tour at my own pace. I chose the downtown loop tour on the Gray Line (which, paradoxically, runs those red buses seen in movies!) because it had quite a few of the must-sees. Unfortunately, it began to pour the moment I stepped out, and I was entirely unprepared for rain. Luckily, the tour operators thoughtfully provided raincoats — more like giant plastic sheets with a hood and sleeves – but at least it kept me relatively dry. Beginning from Times Square, the bus took me to all the places I'd heard, read and seen (vicariously till now) from Broadway and the Empire State Building to Macy's, SoHo, Greenwich Village, Ground Zero, the Financial District, Bowling Green, Battery Park (the stop for the Statue of Liberty), the Seaport area, Central Park and back. I realize now that it's best to decide all your stops beforehand so that time can be budgeted – which is something I didn't do. I hopped off at the Empire State Building, which was a bad idea because that's something one should see separately as the queues will take at least an hour – if you're lucky. My wait was shorter because there was a sudden announcements that elevators were being stopped due to bad weather. I suppose rain is worse when a building literally scrapes an overcast sky! So, I went on to wander through parts of SoHo (thinking all the while, "Omigod, I'm in New York") ending up at Ground Zero. That turned out to be another waste of time because, well, there's nothing much to see except construction work. The St Paul's Chapel near the site, which is supposed to be Manhattan's oldest public building in use, was very charming, though. I also got off at Battery Park, to see the Statue of Liberty. It was too late for the boatride to the statue, but the Staten Island ferry is a perfect alternative if you don't actually want to get off on the island to see the statue close up. A nd the best part is that it's free – which was important considering I automatically converted everything into rupees despite being warned of the perils of doing so! The ferry chugged past the statue onward to Staten Island – where I had to compulsorily get off there and take the next ferry back. They even had guards check to see that everyone got off, their reasoning being that it was a ferry, not a cruise ship! I enjoyed the bus ride through the Financial District, especially seeing the famous "Charging Bull" near Wall Street. For some curious reason, rubbing its testicles is supposed to bring good luck and our tour guide pointed out the number of people who obviously seemed to believe this! I barely had time for Central Park after this and had to be content with just a small walk and the resolve to come again for a more thorough look-see. Since it was summer, it would get dark only after 8:30 and I didn't much fancy testing if New York really was safe for women at night, so it was back to the hotel. Over the next two days, I packed in a Broadway musical (Rent at the Nederlander Theatre which was excellent!), a trip to the 88th floor of the Empire Street, a walk over Brooklyn Bridge and through China Town, Grand Central Station and Lower East Village. I also notched up a trip to a quaint Swedish restaurant in the Lower East Village with a friend, my first experience of that cuisine. I was quite clueless about food from that part of the world (apart from meatballs) so I let my friend do the ordering. He had traditional meatballs, which came with sweet jelly and mashed potatoes – a surprisingly good combination. I had a yummy halibut, with jacket potatoes and a citrus sauce. Excellent German beer, which came with a slice of lemon, added to the flavour of the afternoon. The meal ended with freshly-brewed Ethiopian coffee at a nearby café. Aaah cosmopolitan New York! My first NY subway experience was from Brooklyn Bridge to Grand Central. While another passenger was explaining how I could buy the token (simply put money into the right slot), another decided to save time by swiping me through! Though the Delhi metro is sleeker, bigger and cleaner (how nice to be able to say that in an awesome place like the Big Apple!), the sheer extent of New York's network is admirable. It's definitely the cheapest and fastest way to get around the city. New York, incidentally, is quite an easy city to navigate, even for someone like me with the double handicap of having the worst sense of direction and an inability to read maps! The city is divided into streets and avenues, crossing at right angles so it's easy to find a place on the grid. I was also lucky enough to run into only friendly New Yorkers when asking for directions. They seemed more than willing to give me the right directions – instead of trampling me! My last day was reserved for that promised second visit to Central Park. How could I leave without paying tribute to Lennon? Negotiating the park was not as easy as walking through the city but every bit as enjoyable. The never-ending expanse of greenery was refreshing and there were lots of things to see from the avenue of elms to the Shakespeare Garden, the Swiss Marionette Theatre (closed then), Belvedere Castle (used by the meteorological department), the beautiful Bethesda Fountain – and Strawberry Fields. The actual memorial to Lennon was a grove of trees contributed by different countries and planted in the shape of a teardrop. There is also a huge circle with 'Imagine' written in the center and apparently decorated every day with flowers by a person who, to me, looked like Hulk Hogan. I also loved the way people playing music at different spots, from a lone flautist to an entire orchestra! Three hours in the park meant I had very little time left for my last stop, the New York Metropolitan Museum. I had just two hours instead of two days so as soon as I got the map I marked what I had to see- the Impressionists. I headed straight there after a quick dekko of the Egyptian, African, Roman and Greek sections. I could hardly believe that I was standing before the masterpieces I'd seen only in pictures—from Van Gogh's self-portrait (I took a photo standing next to it) to Renoirs, Manets and Monets. That was truly a high point of the trip but I had to leave after seeing only a fraction of the Met. Next time....!. I had a strange melancholy feeling as I left New York, not sure that I'd get a chance to visit again. So on my flight back, I watched that Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr classic, An Affair To Remember—to stretch the amazing NY experience just a little longer!