New York August 2016
We arrived in New York to a wall of heat. After a long flight, we’d decided to forgo the easy option of a taxi and chose public transport as our carriage to the airport, and after a monorail, train and subway journey we finally emerged in the middle of hot and steamy Manhattan. So absorbed was I in the overwhelming heat that it took Nick to make me stop and look around at our surroundings. I stopped dead in my tracks, gazed upwards and gaped. I was awestruck. I knew New York would be big but I’d never conceived just how enormous it truly was until now. The buildings seemed to stretch endlessly into the sky and from every direction gigantic lit-up advertisements shone down on me. It was Friday night and all of New York’s young and beautiful were out enjoying themselves. New York seems to do Friday nights in a much classier way than London. In London it’s difficult to avoid the staggering drunks, leering lads and pools of piss and vomit. New York, on the other hand, appears much more relaxed. American girls seem to have found a way to keep their makeup from smudging, the streets were clean and shiny and if anyone was drunk they were doing a very good job of disguising it. I would have loved to stay and join in with the fun and frolics but we had our bags weighing us down and the heat was very rapidly threatening to overwhelm us completely. Instead we plunged on into China Town to our tiny but functional hotel room where we spent some time trying to decide whether we had the energy to head back out before eventually succumbing to exhaustion and collapsing in bed.
After only a few hours of very broken sleep, we got up early to make the most of our morning. We had a flight to catch in the afternoon and wanted to hit a few of the tourist attractions first and so headed out back into the immense heat of New York. Just walking towards our destinations we were perpetually awestruck. Everything was just so big and exciting. The mere act of buying a coffee sent me into near spasms of excitement because getting a morning take-out coffee is “just such a New York thing to do”. America was always a place that I never really believed in. I mean, obviously I knew it existed, but it just never felt real to me. I’d seen so many American films that it felt as though it was a place that existed solely on screen. And as we wandered through the streets of down town Manhattan that’s exactly how I felt; as if I was in a film.
One of the striking things about New York is just how beautiful everyone is. Everyone is well-groomed with not even a hair out of place. Everyone has a tan. Everyone has perfect teeth and everyone looks like they work out. With my travelling clothes, fizzy hair from the humidity and tired, jet-lagged eyes I’ve never felt more out of place. The other thing I was suddenly self-conscious of was my accent. I suddenly felt very bumbling and British. Somehow, despite being finally in a country with no language barrier, I found that virtually no one could understand me. Seeing as I’m fairly well spoken I found this difficult to understand. Perhaps us Brits simply don’t speak as clearly and confidently as Americans.
The main sights we took in that morning were the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street and the 9/11 memorial. The memorial was particularly striking: two deep pools over the exact sights of the two buildings with water cascading down into a deep well in the centre. I felt it was the perfect way to mark such a tragic event.
After a morning exploring down town Manhattan it was time to leave already as we had flights to Panama to catch. We said a fond farewell to New York and jetted off for new adventures in Central America.
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We arrived back in New York thinking we would now be used to the heat after travelling for nearly three weeks in humid Panama. We were wrong. New York was in the grips of a heat wave; a heat wave that utterly consumed u. Stepping out of the airport was like stepping into an oven. This time we had an Airbnb booked in East Harlem and from La Guardia airport we were able to take a bus all the way to Harlem, just fifteen blocks from our apartment, (although fifteen blocks in a heat wave with a backpack on feels much further than it actually is!). We were welcomed by our host Erika and found the apartment to be small but comfortable. Although we were away from all the touristy action we enjoyed being able to see ‘the real’ Manhattan, and with subway stops and Central Park within a short walk we found that getting into town was no problem at all.
Our first day we decided to explore Central Park, so, like real New Yorkers, we grabbed a couple of hot sandwiches from a local deli and headed into the park for lunch. I’d always been interested to see this enormous park that takes up the centre of Manhattan. Once inside, however, it didn’t feel nearly as big as I thought it would. Perhaps it is because skyscrapers line the edges on all sides drawing attention to where the park ends and the hot, suffocating city continues. The towering buildings create a wall around the park, penning it in, almost creating a prison of the park. Central Park must feel like such an escape for New Yorkers, especially during the hot summer months. However, the looming city buildings act as a stark reminder that the park is not really an escape at all, but rather a giant, fenced in prison in the very centre of the consuming city.
That evening we head to a nearby bar and grill called Maxwell’s. We propped up the bar and quickly got chatting to the bar staff, fulfilling our perfect stereotype of drinking in an American bar. We had planned to continue down town to a jazz bar but enjoyed chatting and making friends at the bar and after several free shots and cocktails from the staff we found ourselves the last to leave in the early hours of the morning.
Amazingly the next day we felt virtually hangover free and set off for mid-town Manhattan to explore all the main tourist spots. We got off the subway at Times Square and from there spent the rest of the day and evening exploring midtown on foot. It was still scorching hot and so the going was slow but we managed to take in Times Square, Broadway, the Rockefeller Centre, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler building and Grand Central Station. We had wanted to go up either the Rockefeller or Empire State but unfortunately the queues were ridiculously long and so we decided to pass. We enjoyed looking up from the ground level however, perpetually astounded by just how big everything was. We stayed out until around half nine when exhaustion and the overpowering heat took over and we head back up to Harlem and to bed.
Our last day in New York and our flight wasn’t until 10:30 that night so we set out for one last day exploring this great city that I was rapidly falling in love with. This time we head down to Greenwich Village, the cool part of town full of independent cafes and restaurants. Immediately I decided that this was my favourite part of New York. The roads and buildings were much smaller here and the place had a European vibe while still being distinctly New York. We spent the day wandering aimlessly through the streets and relaxing in the lovely Washington Square Park listening to a pianist place Debussy and watching old men playing chess. The consumerism of New York finally got to us and so we wandered into Soho for a spot of shopping where we both spent a ludicrous amount of money on sunglasses and returned to Washington Park feeling instantly cooler.
We head back to Harlem to pick up our bags and had just enough time for a couple of drinks back at Maxwell’s to say goodbye to our new friends. It was with heavy hearts that we finally picked up our bags and set off for the airport, saying a fond farewell to New York and vowing to return again soon.
(Credit goes to Nick Rowson for all the photos).