Warning – This is a text heavy post. American photographic journey will be up soon….
Ever since I landed in the US, I have been wanting to write a post on the things I have seen, felt, experienced. Its been 2 weeks now and I have been victim to a terrible writers block. Not that I don’t have the tools to write. Everytime I sat down with my little EEE PC, I did not know where to begin. Should I talk about the crazy queue outside the Empire State Building or the clean pair of sneakers the New York Rickshaw guys wear? Should I talk about the exotic cuisine I tried or the protesters outside the White House? Should I talk about the overrated bell in Philly or the incredible tiramisu ice cream in Wisconsin? Should I talk about Obama campaign or the free wi-fi spots? Having only wondered about USA for all these years, finally landing up here breaks so many myths and confirms so many assumptions. In this post, I hope to capture the things I noticed in these 2 weeks that I have never even thought of in 28 years…. Its just been an interesting walk…
Landing up here on 15th September in the wee hours of the morning, the first words that I hear from an American in American soil was as follows – “switch off your phone or pay a hefty fine” (in a loud gruff irritated pained voice). Having landed in JFK at 6 am, I needed to look up my friends number and did not realise that you cannot switch on your phone in the immigration area. They had 5 sign boards pointing to the rest room and 7 pointing to the immigration area, but not one that mentioned ‘do not use cellphones’. Lesson 1 – these security guards / cops / whatever they are have been given power that they love to use on poor lost jetlagged souls like me. Power that they love to use on every given opportunity. After that experience, I was extra cautious in reading every signboard around me.
I collected my baggage and realised that not a single information booth or shop was open in JFK that early in the morning. Thanks to the online googlemap research I had done the day before leaving, I confidently boarded the Air Train to Jamaica Station and took 2 subway rides to get to my friends place in Brooklyn. Exiting the subway station Grand Street on Brooklyn, I was shocked to see many police vehicles parked outside a high school in the neighbourhood. Lesson 2 – There are dedicated police personnel outside high schools in many neighbourhoods.. no guesses why… the kids in the schools looked fairly harmless… later on, I was told that the really dangerous ones never attended school. They bunked and hung around the neighbourhood.
My friends (childhood best friend Smitha, who married Andy, an artist she met in college in New York) lived in a small 2 room apartment with 2 cats. Not larger than a typical Bombay apartment, I felt at home immediately (minus the cats). First taste of New York life in an apartment – It was not too different from the Bombay life. Fridge hardly stocked. Eating out most of the time. Post box filled with bills (ones we hate to pay). Mini garden in the window sill. Small bathrooms. No idea who your neighbours are. High rentals. Use the apartment only to come back and sleep around 11 pm. Its a place you call home and wished it didnt cost as much.
New York to me is just a cleaner, more organized Bombay. And a place I was falling in love with.
Right from day 1, I used the subway to ride into Manhattan. I had received tons of advice that it would be crazy on the subway. In the NYC subways, there are signs that mention – ‘Do not lean on the doors’. There are announcements – ‘Stand aside for the closing doors please’. In Mumbai, there are no doors to begin with. The subway was a cakewalk. After taking the subway, it is incredibly easy to just walk around. Manhattan is divided into 3 parts – Uptown, Midtown and Downtown. Someone explained to me that ‘Uptown is where you live, Midtown where you shop and Downtown where you work’. Simple Manhattan logic. Lesson 3 – For the poor tourist, you live where you can stay for free (in my case, my best friends small apartment in Brooklyn), you dont shop and you obviously dont work (its illegal).
How do you find your way around Manhattan? Well… pick up the metro map and the bus map from any of the subway stations. Metro passes cost 25$ for 1 week of unlimited travel on subways and buses. Buying that card makes ultimate sense. If you are around only for 2 – 3 days, then buy the day pass for 7.5$ per day. Once you get out of any station, its walking all the way. Streets are numbered and avenues have names. It is so easy to find anything. For eg: people never ask you to meet them at 14th street. They always mention 14th and 8th. That means the intersection of 14th street and 8th avenue. It sounded stupid to me initially. But, trust me – its so simple. You cannot compare this with India because no one really knows the street names in India. In Bandra where I live, I have to give directions using restaurants. Each city has its own direction code and once you figure that out, you are pretty much a local. I was so comfortable from day 2 that people started asking me for directions. How do I get to 28th and 1st and what not? Lesson 4 – Andy’s (my friends husband) secret to this was as follows – ‘Look confident, point in one direction and speak quickly… 2 blocks down to your left or 3 blocks to your right… look more busy and walk away… and hope you don’t bump into the person again’. Andy has survived in New York for a decade by giving wrong directions to people.
What do you see in New York? For the first time, I did not carry a guidebook with me. I just had a map. I decided to walk my feet off. Lesson 5 – You may actually discover a lot more in a city if you did not know what to look for. If you cannot find a map, just find the nearest Barnes and Noble bookstore and you can get lovely walking maps. They are expensive. That is the cost you will pay for not researching enough before the trip. That is evil of me. Anyway, the cheaper way to get a map is to find a Visitor information booth. Ask around.
7 days of New York walking and the highlights were –
- Farmers market in union square (scare yourself by looking at the size of the tomatoes)
- Art displayed on the street outside the Metropolitan museum (if you do not understand art, going inside makes no sense anyway. Also, 20$ is not worth spending on museums for someone who still uses crayons)
- Clicking japanese tourists clicking each other at times square (If you want your picture clicked, go to the Japs.. they are the only ones who can frame a photo exquisitely)
- Street performers in Battery Park (they are kick ass acrobats)
- Window shopping at fifth avenue (if i actually shopped, i would have been forced to cancel my south america trip)
- Walk across the Williamsburg bridge and Brooklyn bridge (always keep to the right or cyclists may run you over)
- Trying new cuisines at the restaurants – Venezuelan, Ethiopian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mediterranean, Korean, Mexican, Southern American… you name it, you’ll find it. (You better be equipped with a friend like Smitha or look up Yelp)
- Subway rides (when you have an unlimited pass, spending some time on the subway observing busy life is an awesome way to sink into the city…. diversity is an understatement.
- Catching an afternoon nap in Central park (use your bag as a pillow so that no one runs away with it)
- Sitting by the waterfront in south street s
eaport (enjoy a beer and catch a view of the waterfalls under the brooklyn bridge… there are 4 of them or 5 of them and they come down in November 2008)
- Walking through the Columbia University campus (if you are highly motivated, go back and give your GRE)
- Gazing up at the empire state building or rockfeller centre (dint bother going up)
- Ferry ride to the statue of liberty (i guess it would have been criminal if I visited NY and not the statue of liberty)
- Virgin store at union square for movie buffs (if you hang around outside the store, there are many amateur musicians giving away free cds to people for word of mouth publicity… a nice way to get some local music)
- Tasting shrimp at bubba gump shrimp co at times square for the forrest gump fans (yummmmy)
- Eating cheap Chinese food and having bubble tea at Chinatown (dont miss the condensed milk on toast… sinful)
- Walking through the festive street in Little Italy
- Apple store in Fifth avenue (trust Apple to come up with an innovative store as well Catch a Broadway show (if you have the money, do check out Lion King at Minskoff Theatre
- Hanging out with my friends drinking wine and cooking food in their apartment (after all the walking around)
- Trying to strike a cordial relationship with my friend’s 2 cats Missi and Greg
My list is in a very random order. If you want a walking tour plan of New York city, write to me and Ill send you some notes.
You can say I was addicted to New York in no time at all. The only reason I left was because I knew I had to get back to New York before flying out to Brazil. After 1 week in one of the most expensive cities, the budget traveler in me woke up on 21st September. I took the Chinatown bus from New York to Philly. Chinatown buses, originally used by the Chinese population to commute, was discovered by the budget traveler recently. These days, its the cheapest option between various sectors like NY – Philly and Philly – DC. They say that some Chinatown buses are even Wi-fi. Free internet and a bus ride for under 10 bucks is fabulous… over and above that, you get to meet fellow travelers and chill a bit. I met an Italian architect from Florence who was sketching in the East Coast (silver shoes and pink shorts.. you know what that means) and a guy from Taiwan who was so happy that I was using a Taiwanese laptop. Lesson 5 – Do not pay any Chinese person for the tickets till you actually see the bus.
Reaching Philly, I did an express tour in 1 day. The Liberty Bell, a symbol of the American Revolution, of liberties gained and of liberties denied is safely displayed in Philly. A walk around historic Philly and you will discover the Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell Centre, Betsy Ross’s house (the woman who designed the stars and stripes in the American flag), the Masonic temple, a huge Free Library, the Comcast building (tallest building in Philly), the Rittenhouse Square park, the Benjamin Franklin parkway (displays all the flags) and the Art Museum. If you are lost, look up and search for the Comcast building and start walking towards it. That is bangin the middle of the city. There are tons of other historic sights but with very little knowledge of American history, I skipped it. Lesson 6 – Read up before visiting historic monuments….. a sincere advice. Else, its like ordering the regular coffee at Starbucks when you could have actually tasted the Vanilla flavoured Pumpkin Spice Latte.
Here, I must deviate a bit and talk about Starbucks. First couple of times, I was terrified of landing up at the cash counter because everyone around me were ordering Iced Latte Grande with Cream and blah blah and Vanilla chai hot with low fat milk in super speed and I was muttering coffee and hunting for change. Starbucks has the most complicated offering. Hence, you need to assess the menu board from a distance and walk up with confidence and demand what you want. There is no time to think when you are at the cash counter and there are 5 people behind you giving you dirty looks. Apart from that, get used to the fact that the smallest size of coffee is called TALL. For someone who is used to drinking cutting chai and mini filter coffee in India, TALL cup of coffee is overdose. Get used to it. Another important advice – they advertise free Wi-fi outside, however it is only for those with an AT&T account. Its not like the standalone cafes which let you use free Wi-fi. Don’t get fooled. There is one positive and that is Lesson 7 – Starbucks is your best friend when you are hunting for a loo.
Getting back to Philly, a couple of things that I really liked were the Love monument (a sculpture at the JFK plaza), the Reading Terminal Market – one of the largest farmers markets, a walk by the Schuykill river and a visit to the Magic Garden on South Street which boasts fabulous mosaic work.
I guess I will remember the following things about Philly – the hundreds of sign boards and paraphernalia about the Liberty Bell or the Philly Cheese Steak… the pretty street names Walnut, Chestnut, Cherry and Appletree and the abrupt Ionic street amidst all this… More than that, I will remember Philly for the wonderful reunion with friends like Varun (one who shares my sentiments about Marico, one who has a multitasking fabulous wife Preeti and a lovely newborn son Arya who strikes the most amazing boxer pose, one whose mother fed me the worlds best Rajma chaval and one who gifted me a cute tent for my journey) and Melissa (my kid sisters partner in crime during the useless computer bachelors degree they did, one who uses ‘machan’ and makes me feel like I am in madras, one who has a boyfriend who does the funny photographic squat and one who did buy me a lovely drink at a Rum Bar).
The Chinatown bus from Philly to DC was just as cheap and just as interesting. I met a homesick American student who was surprising her parents in DC for the weekend. I guess homesick students are a worldwide phenomena.
I had 2 days to officially roam around DC. The only thing I really wanted to see was the reflecting pool by the Lincoln memorial, which was featured in Forrest Gump. I could have lived without seeing the White House. But, I gave in to tourist itch and walked around the White House. Hmmmm… its no big deal. I think we have been fooled for many many years by the movies. Whenever they show Washington DC, they always show the Capitol Building and then cut to the President. One always thinks that the Capitol building is the White House. Naaaaaat (in Borat style). Anyway, the real small White House has a large black fence around it and you can stand near it and take pictures. If you get too close, you can see the snipers on the roof. It feels like a scene from 24 (TV show).
I also walked around the National Mall. That is not a large shopping centre. It’s the area stretching from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln memorial and the White House to the Jefferson Memorial. Its a large area, which houses every major historical monument and museum. As you walk through the Mall, you can see the Washington Memorial, World War 2 Memorial, Vietnamese and Korean War Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Roosevelt Momorial, Smithsonian Museum and a lot more… the lawns, the fountains and the reflecting pools add to the splendour. You can spend an entire day walking through this. If you do not want to spend money to go up the Washington memorial (obelisk), you can check out the Post Office Pavillion building (which is another tall building with a great view) which lets you go up for free. A visit to the Smithsonian museum is a must if you are a museum freak cause its free and there is tons to see. I did an express tour of the natural history museum… for someone who doesn’t normally like to visit museums, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Do visit the gem section, which has diamonds worth billions, mostly from India (Moment of national pride and frustration that everything is caged in a museum in DC).
Apart from the historic stuff, DC does offer you some cosmopolitan trendy neighbourhood options like Adams Morgan, Georgetown and U street. An offbeat museum to visit is the Spy Museum. You can always walk around and check out the headquarters of FBI, CIA and NSA and feel very important. If you visit pre election and its the day of any debate, hit a bar. I am told that the debate parties are awesome. I was in DC during the first Obama Mc Cain debate and I cannot believe I missed the party.
DC was also home to some fabulous reunions – My host was Lakshmi (a year my senior in school, my highjump and relay partner, someone who choreographed the umbrella dance in 7th std, who is 7 months pregnant and still an enthu tour guide, married to Kashyap, who told me – ‘feel at home…. you are welcome to clean if you want to’). Lesson 8 was learnt at her place – How to use the taps in USA. After having visited 4 homes and various washrooms, I had actually not come across two taps that worked in a similar fashion. It true. They are all made to confuse people. Stand away from the bathtub, open the tap and move it around left and right to figure hot and cold, pull and push knob to figure tap and shower, wave your hald in front of it to see if it does something else and then step into the bathtub. This lesson has saved mild burns I may have suffered in the process of a shower otherwise.
I also met up with Anu (who was my junior in college, who sang all the awful Carpenters songs with us in College culturals, who wasted time in besant nagar beach like me and who treated me to super Asian food and who is married to a aerospace something phd super intelligent looking guy). I also drank the night away with Arvind and Shyam (who used to play cricket outside Smitha’s house in Besant Nagar, who Ive seen from the age of 8 – 18, who now live in the same street in Virginia and who are married to very normal women for the crazy guys that they are and who cant believe that I am grown up and traveling and drinking rum).
I flew from DC to Milwaukee and my cousins showed me a wonderful weekend. It was 100% family time and catching up with cousins, who I haven’t seen in 10 years. Apart from treating me to tons of food, they drove me to Madison, the most happening university town in the Midwest. That is where my sister is. She goes to the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I’m currently experiencing student life (the American university student life, which I have always wondered about) and relaxing a bit. I have actually managed to gather a lot of time to write, think about everything I have seen and call people (who have been bombing my Facebook with call me messages). I am connected after 2 weeks of roaming without a mobile phone (which has been blissful). This long story is a result of the time I have in my hands suddenly (considering the fact I have promised to cook dinner for her in the next couple of hours).
There are so many things I haven’t even touched upon above. Considering the fact I landed up in the US in the middle of the huge financial crisis and the upcoming elections, I must say that people generally discussed a lot more than just the weather. I learnt about the ‘quality of life’.. mortgage fundas…the weather.. cost of 5 bedroom townhomes… cleaning your own dishes… the weather… all types of visas… citizenship issues…. driving trouble… the weather.. traffic jams.. flexi work timing… genetically modified food.. vitamin water… the weather… epidural during delivery… funny street signs… sales sales sales… IKEA furniture…. the weather… medical expenses… indian stores… ABCDs… the weather… Hollywood… voting.. Bikram Yoga… the weather…. about moving to the UK if Mc cain got elected… about Palin and the Russian backyard… about everything available in extra large sizes.. the weather…
America has lived upto my expectations…. I guess I did not have any to begin with. It has challenged my thinking…. One month after quitting my job, I really wasn’t doing any thinking. It continues to be a great learning experience and a good workout…. Afterall, it has made me walk like never before…