First bite of the Big Apple

New York City is a pretty incredible place. You feel like you know so much about it when you first arrive, purely from all the movies and TV shows you’ve seen throughout your life (or at least, that’s how I felt), but when you’re actually there, you discover that it is so much bigger, so much denser, and so much more eccentric than you ever realised. It’s everything you thought it was, but also so much more. The people who live there are forever calling it the greatest city in the world, and while I personally wouldn’t be so quick to immediately hand it such a title, it definitely clocks in as a major contender. New York City and Melissa’s apartment would be my home for the next six weeks, acting as my base camp during my time on the upper east coast of North America.

***

While I was here on holidays, to explore the concrete jungle, Melissa had just started grad school, so in the morning when she set off for school in the Bronx, I set out to wander the streets. I guess it was that morning, when Melissa told me where exactly she was going, that I started to learn about the local geography that made up New York City. The five boroughs of New York City are Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island – any further east and you’ll find yourself in the rest of Long Island, and eventually hit the Hamptons. Cross any bridge to your west and you’ll find yourself not even in New York state anymore, but the state of New Jersey. Manhattan is the main central island that you see in all the movies, the real “city”, such skyscrapers and department stores and parks and… well, it has everything, really. The Bronx is north of Manhattan, considered a little unsafe but also hailed as the birthplace of hip hop. Brooklyn is the western tip of Long Island and a haven for hipsters and creative types,  and Queens, just above Brooklyn, is the largest borough and a huge cultural and ethnic melting pot. Staten Island is south of Manhattan, and mostly just a residential area that honestly feels like a bit of a stretch when you try and say it’s part of New York City but whatever. That’s the most basic way I can describe it, but I’m not going to pretend like I learnt a lot about each borough – I spent 98% of my time in New York City in Manhattan. Still, it was interesting to actually study the map and the layout of the city, putting physical locations to names that I had been hearing repeated constantly on the television and in cinemas for as many years as I can remember. I finally understood what Gossip Girl‘s Blair meant every time she complained about the distance between Brooklyn and the Upper East side of Manhattan.

So while Melissa had to trek it all the way to the Bronx, I was already starting my day in midtown Manhattan, so that’s where I would begin my exploring on foot. Looking at maps of Manhattan, you would think that it would be pretty hard to get technically get lost. The streets running from east to west were all numbered with numbers, and with a few exceptions like Lexington and Madison, all the avenues running to tip to tip of the island were too. You just had to look at the street sign and any corner and then walk a block in any direction to see how the numbers changed in order to know what direction you were going in. It was so logical, and suddenly any reference to a number of ‘blocks’ as a measure of distance finally made sense – this was a city of revelations! ‘Blocks’, as such, in Sydney aren’t geographically even, so the concept of blocks had always been a little lost on me, but the way you could literally just use street signs to navigate through New York City was just remarkable. Or so I thought.

There are tricky streets that I think are thrown in just to purposely confuse people – the culprit in this particular situation being Broadway. Broadway is a street with a slight diagonal tilt that dissects the blocks unevenly, and if you follow it long enough it can be a little trickier to keep track of both how many horizontal streets and vertical avenues that you’ve crossed. Or maybe I was too awestruck but the city lights around me to really keep track. But really, can you blame me? I must have looked exactly like the kind of tourist I hate, dawdling along the footpath and staring up at the skyscrapers and the flashing lights of Times Square, but it was really was something incredible. It was my first day there, so I figured I should cut myself some slack.

New York, New York! The city was full of advertisements as well as skyscrapers.

New York, New York! The city was full of advertisements as well as skyscrapers.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Couldn't help but take a picture of this one for Matt back in Dublin.

Couldn’t help but take a picture of this one for Matt back in Dublin.

And so I stopped into a Starbucks to grab some breakfast (when in Rome, right?), and as I headed back out onto the street I turned and headed in what I thought was the right direction. I mean, I was just continuing on the way that I was going before. My plan was to walk through the city all the way to Central Park – it would take a while, but I was in no rush, and I could meet Melissa there after she had finished class. But after a while I noticed that the numbers of the streets I passed were going down rather than up, which would mean I was heading south. Well, that’s impossible, I thought to myself as I carried on. I turned the right way, I’m sure of it. The numbers must just do something a little strange here. Yet as I carried on, I started to see a few things that were slightly familiar, and eventually it became clear that I was indeed walking the wrong way. I still honestly have no idea how it happened. I consider myself to be a very good navigator, and there were few times on my entire journey where I had been unknowingly walking in the wrong direction. I guess I got a little cocky in thinking that New York was a navigators dream, because all those distractions definitely worked on me.

***

There were other dangers that I found myself unprepared for, ones that make me cringe when I think back on them, but ones that I learnt from very quickly. Times Square is for all intents and purposes, a tourist trap. I should have expected that there were people who were up to no good and trying to take my money. Now I wasn’t mugged or anything – though I’m entirely aware that’s within the realm of possibility – but I think my sense of wonder forced me to let my guard down a little bit. All along select parts of Broadway were a lot of mostly African American men who seemed to be promoting themselves as rappers or hip hop artists, giving out demo CDs and collecting donations. One of them stopped me to comment on my t-shirt – the “I ‘Heart’ BJ” one I got in Beijing – and I was glad that the humour was finally being appreciated in an English-speaking country. He asked for a photo with me, and I obliged, and then he gave me a copy of his CD in a clear plastic case. Then he said something about asking for a donation or something to help him out. I couldn’t tell you his exact words, but he came across as a bit of a sweet-talking crooner – or a hustler, whatever – and I guess he seemed decent enough to spare some change on. Except I had just arrived, and didn’t have a lot of coins. The smallest note that I had was a ten dollar bill, which I wasn’t actually prepared to give to some random guy on the street giving out free rap CD’s – I don’t even really like rap music that much. I don’t know what I was expecting – I tried to say something about not having anything smaller, he cooly said something about change, but I ended up walking away rather confused and with ten less dollars in my wallet. It was kind of surreal. When I realised what had just happened, I was a little angry, but decided it would be a bad idea to make a scene of ask for some change from the $10 I’d given him, or try and get my money back at all. I just sighed and kept walking, thankful that the damage wasn’t as bad as the last time I’d been played by a scammer in China. And now that I think about it, I never even ended up listening to that CD.

I continued on to Central Perk, which is absolutely huge. I know people have always said Central Park is huge, just like New York City is huge, but just like I never realised how huge New York City really is, I never realised how huge Central Park is too! It’s not just a casual park in the middle of the city – it goes on seemingly forever. I wandered through the southern tip of the park, where there were kids playing, people walking their dogs and riding their bikes, other people jogging on their lunch breaks, horse drawn carriages taking people for a ride, and I even stumbled across a baseball diamond where a bunch of people were playing a game. I sat down in the shade, tired of my long walk through the city, before going to meet Melissa at Columbus Circle, the monument on the south eastern tip of the park. From there, she showed me probably one of the most iconic parts of the Central Park that was within suitable walking distance – Strawberry Fields, the landscaped section that is dedicated to John Lennon, with the Imagine memorial mosaic located directly across the street from where he was assassinated in 1980.

The Imagine memorial.

The Imagine memorial.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on here,” Melissa said as we walked around the rather quiet and solemn area of the park. “People come and lay flowers and roses all the time, and people play music a lot too.” On one of the benches was a man who was strumming a guitar, not too loud to be disturbing, but more like peaceful background music. Though I think he was homeless and the guitar was rather out of tune, it was still a touch that felt very authentic for New York. There was a sole flower bud that had been placed on the memorial that morning, and Melissa and I wandered around for a little while as she told me more things about the park and the city, as well as just hanging out and catching up some more.

We decided the head home for lunch, stopping at the grocery store to buy food for the empty fridge in Melissa’s new kitchen. So we took the subway home – and this is the final feature of New York City that I want to gush about in this post. For everyone who has been following my journey from the beginning, you will know that I am a bit of public transport enthusiast. I think most of it can probably be traced back to the subpar rail network in my own hometown of Sydney, but whether it was the MRT in Singapore, the BTS in Bangkok, the U-Bahn in Berlin, the metros in Paris, Madrid, Moscow or St Petersburg, or the tube in London, I was basically obsessed with these public transport systems that could take you relatively quickly across large distances within a city, as well as having services coming every 3 to 5 minutes on average. But now I was finally in New York, and I was getting to experience the subway for the first time. I’d been very impressed with London, but I think the New York City subway really in the Holy Grail of city-wide public transportation. Sure, it’s not always as clean as some of the other city’s metros, and you’re often packed in like sardines with commuters during peak hour and there’s a 50% chance there will be some kind of musician or other irritating person on the carriage, but aside from considering all of those things as hidden perks that give the system a bit of authentic New York charm, the subway covers some enormous distances in relatively good time. There are all kinds of connections running from east to west, multiple lines going up and down Manhattan offering express services as well as local ones for the smaller stops, there are connections to ferry wharfs and trains that go to Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. No matter where you need to go in the city, there is a good chance the public transport can take you very close to where you need to be, and that was just something I wasn’t used to – there are parts of Sydney I’ve hardly ever been to because if you don’t have a car then it’s almost impossible. In this city, car ownership is practically considered a waste of space.

I still had a lot to see, and probably a lot to learn about the city. But I had only just arrived, and I had quite a long time to immerse myself in one of the biggest cities in the world. My brain was already exploding and I’d been in town for less than 24 hours, but I was sure New York hadn’t even begun to blow my mind.

Reflections on South East Asia

After my stressful trip back to Bangkok, I spent my last days in Thailand with Rathana, just chilling out and doing relatively normal things – going out for dinner, having a few drinks at a sky bar, watching a movie, doing a bit of shopping and chilling by the pool. When I think about it, it’s those little things that I really enjoyed about my time abroad. While it is fine to be a big ol’ tourist and gush over temples and beaches and resorts and all that jazz, I love the feeling of spending time just being in a foreign city and really living there, doing all the regular stuff as well as all the typical holiday things. I haven’t really figured out what I want to do with my life when, God forbid, this incredible journey comes to an end, but I must say that I’ve really developed a taste for living abroad. That issue is a can of worms in itself, though, and for now I just want to reflect on some things I’ve noticed, lessons I’ve learnt, and the life I’ve experienced during my time in South East Asia.

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One thing that I was expecting, yet still deeply shocked by, was the prevalence of poverty in these countries. It broke my heart to see so many children in the streets, whether it was the boy in Saigon performing gruesome tricks such as breathing fire, chewing hot coals and eating razor blades, then approaching the crowds of beer-drinking tourists for a donation, or the little girl following me through the temples of Angkor Wat desperately trying to sell me five fridge magnets for a dollar, or the little girl carrying her baby brother, standing next to my table at a cafe in Siem Reap pleading, “Please, I don’t want money, I just want food.” It makes you want to run to the ATM and empty your accounts into their starving little hands, but I’ve been warned by so many about the poverty traps that evolve from giving these kids money, encouraging the very behaviour that keeps them on the streets and out of school. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, Allistair told me he sometimes gave them a little bit of money, but made them promise that they would get off the streets and use the money to go to school. Yet I wonder how many kids actually listen to his advice, and how many just see it as another reason to continue with their begging.

Other people suggest that sitting them down and actually buying them a meal is a thousand times better than giving them money could ever be. However, I had a rather unpleasant experience in restaurant in Phnom Penh when it came to offering food. I had ordered pizza and a beer, and was sitting on a table facing out into the street, catching up on some blog posts and sending a few emails home on my iPad. Cambodia is full of people selling things on the street, whether its sunglasses, books, bracelets or marijuana, but it always tugs your heart strings a little to see children working on the streets like that. So when a little girl failed to interest me in the bracelets she was selling and her eyes fell hungrily onto the pizza in front of me, I finally caved in. “Sure,” I said with a smile, “I’m probably not gonna eat the whole thing anyway.” I pushed the plate slightly in her direction, and she leant over and lifted a cheesy triangle out and took a bite. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, were her three smaller companions all wanting their own pieces of my pizza too. “Oh, ah… Sure, take two,” I mumbled mostly to myself, because the little boy hadn’t waited for my permission to take a piece. I still wanted to have some of the pizza myself, so after that I pulled the plate back towards myself and took a bite out of one of the remaining pieces. Another little boy stood staring at me expectantly.

“Can’t you guys share?” I asked, motioning to the second piece that the first little boy had taken. I realise how awful and selfish that sounded, but I was trying to strike a balance between enjoying the food I’d ordered for myself and helping these little kids out. Yet they seemed so angry when I refused to give them any more of my pizza. “Look what you have, you have so much!” they yelled, pointing at my iPad and my beer. I’d have felt a little more guilty if they hadn’t started to harass me so much, with one of the boys sneaking around into the restaurant and behind my chair. I pulled my backpack close under my legs, huddling over my table, and I felt like someone with a bag of hot chips who had just been discovered by a flock of seagulls. The boy got so bold as to reach over and touch my iPad – I’m not sure if he was hoping to achieve anything, perhaps disturb the file I was working on, or simply just annoy me. He failed in the former, but definitely succeeded in the later. I’m not proud to admit it, but after that I ended up losing my temper and swearing at them, in an attempt to scare them off. Yet the girl, who seemed to be the leader of the small group, only came back with a greater fury, spitting my curse words back at me. I was in shock – how did what I thought was a simple gesture of kindness turn so bitter so quickly? The ordeal finally ended when the restaurant owner came out and had a word with the kids in their local tongue, and I relocated to a table further inside the restaurant. It had been a prime example of biting the hand that feeds, and I hate to admit that those children ruined it for all the others – I couldn’t bring myself to donate to any more street children, be it food, money, or anything else, because I was afraid of it escalating into another nasty situation.

***

To revisit a topic from a previous blog, I found the notion of love and relationships to be quite peculiar in South East Asia. As Anna had pointed out to me earlier on in my trip, their definition of love is something very different to our Western ideals of romance.There is a huge emphasis on tradition and family, which is a whole topic worthy of analysis in itself, but in this culture it’s probably similar to what we would call “living the dream” back at home – a white picket fence, happy marriage, two point five kids and an SUV parked in the driveway. Yet in Western culture, it’s becoming increasingly more common to break from the mould and live the life you want to live, not the life that’s expected of you.

That trend hasn’t caught on in Asia. One of the conversations I had with my host while I was Couchsurfing in Vietnam was about relationships. “I really want a boyfriend,” he had told me. “I want to start a family. I know I have my studies to finish, but I really want to start my life now.” When I suggested that there was more to life than relationships and family – or rather, one didn’t need to start a family to feel complete – he practically scoffed at the idea. I told him about several of my previous boyfriends where the topic of children had been discussed – not specially about us having them, but our individual views on the idea – and how every time I had been sure that I had a lot more life to experience before I was ready to settle down, let alone have a baby or start a family. But for him, all he could hear was the ticking of his biological clock. Being gay is one thing, and I was glad that while he wasn’t out, at least my host himself accepted his homosexuality. Yet for him the idea of disappointing his family, and not doing all he could to support and foster those basic traditional values, was a worse crime than loving a man would ever be.

And as my journey continued I saw this theme continue. Any local Asian boy was never just interested in a playful flirt or casual fun. It seemed as though they were all on a similar mission as my Couchsurfing host – to find the love of their life, to cherish and treasure and protect and look after. Which is an admirable quality – God knows it’s one I struggle with – but I can’t ignore the fact that they seem to be rushing through life without appreciating being young. I scoff and roll my eyes at the Westerners I know who are married at age 20, almost exclusively for religious reasons, and I would be quick to do the same again now if it weren’t for my realisation that its so ingrained into the culture, insofar that any other way of life just seems ludicrous.

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Which I guess is only the tip of the iceberg that is the essential difference in culture. I know it sounds obvious, and I’ve read dozens of books on the subject during my sociology degree, but it really took being and living in these places to comprehend the enormous differences in culture. ‘They do things differently in Asia’ is such an incredible understatement. It’s not just a different way of doing things, it’s a different way of thinking things – a different state of mind. You especially notice it when you run into other Westerners, and they seem just as confused as you do about some of those things.

Because the list is endless. I’ve had waiters who don’t understand the concept of tipping, and will actually refuse to take your money. I’ve bought items at a third of their original marked price, all because I didn’t seem interested at the beginning – the shopkeeper literally haggled herself down. As a white person I feel as though I’ve been both the receiver of special treatment and the target of multiple scams, all based on the idea that anyone from the Western world is insanely rich. Which, comparatively, most of us are. It’s a slightly uneasy feeling when it comes to haggling over an amount which literally converts into a couple of dollars back home. In Australia, I would have written it off as a couple of dollars, nothing major. Being in South East Asia almost had the reverse effect on me – in a place where the currency goes a lot further, we seem to want to make every cent count. Yet when we’re shaving a couple of dollars of the price that we’re paying, most of us don’t think about the money that the local seller is not getting, and how much more that money might mean to them than it means to us.

***

Cultural differences aside, I’ve had an amazing beginning to this year-long journey. I’ve been molested by monks and monkeys, run through the crowded streets of Thailand with super soakers, been moved to tears by the histories of Vietnam and Cambodia, won a game of Trivial Pursuits in the suburbs of Saigon, fallen off a motorbike in the middle of Phnom Penh, crammed myself into multiple night buses, and drunk an excessive amount of beer. Just to name a few things.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

As I board my plane to Beijing, I definitely feel a sense of accomplishment. I’ve only been travelling for six weeks, and a lot of people would say that that isn’t a long time at all. Which it isn’t – perhaps about a seventh of my journey in total. But I’ve seen so many places and met so many people that it definitely feels as though its been a long time. In the monotonous routine of life, six weeks can pass in the blink of an eye, so I feel confident that I’ve made the most of every second I’ve been away, experiencing the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, the wild and the crazy and the awe-inspiring. Yet the truth is that I rushed through South East Asia. There’s still a handful of other countries I would loved to have visited had I had more time, and definitely scores of new and exciting things to see when I eventually return.

But now the next stage of my adventure is calling me, along with what I’m sure – and actually hope – are a host of crazy new stories to be told.