Saturday, March 31, 2012

-- The Villagers --

Left the hostel early in the morning planning another day of long walks, this time accompanied by one of my dearest friends whom I met last year in one of my "West of Ireland Adventures".

She had recently moved to New York, yet she was completely used to the Big Apple's routine.
Thermometer was marking -9 degrees Celsius when I started my walk through the frozen lakes of Central Park to the East Side of Manhattan with quick but lovely sights of the clean, curvy lines of the Guggenheim museum (and their "lovely" early morning queues), the MET ( not the Mets) on to the massive buildings uptown in Fifth Avenue, to the Apple Store square where managed to quickly check my e-mails with some free wi-fi and then through the "posh" broad avenue bubbling with people carrying shopping bags from top line stores leading me to the emblematic St. Patrick's Cathedral with its pure Gothic architecture completely antagonizing with the "massive concrete and glass combo" buildings around it.

A few snaps of it and Rockefeller Centre straight across the avenue and just a walk few blocks down to what I think it's one of the most impressive buildings in New York: Grand Central Station.
This building is the main station for all trains arriving from the North of the State and it is always busy. Nonetheless it always looks clean and its main atrium is a combination of classical architecture with golden (not tacky) details and a representation of the sky with some constellations in the high ceiling. A well-lit place that challenged every tourist with a camera to take the perfect picture while thousands of commuters were arriving into town for their daily routines.
Chrysler Building is just across the road from it. Such a pity you can't get in, or at least I didn't know how could you. This is definitely one of the city's main icons with the top of the building resembling the back of a Chrysler car. Once considered one of the tallest buildings in the world, it now houses several offices whilst its gargoyles make a silence surveillance of the busy streets beneath them.

Finally after a communication misunderstanding, I met my friend for one of the biggest traditions in Manhattan: BRUNCH. This meal that combines breakfast and lunch in just one meal it's a weekly thing for New yorkers who actually queue outside cafes and restaurants on Saturday and Sunday mornings to enjoy a nice cup of tea, juice and the biggest variety of eggs & bacon I have ever seen.
As I was late, we had to wait a bit to be seated. My friend had picked this lovely place in The Village who had a Southern Spain/Moroccan vibe. Meal was absolutely gorgeous and filling with a combination of Middle East spices with the simpleness of American cooking whilst some heavy catching up kept going as the meal and some tea was consumed.

Sun was absolutely shining outside the restaurant and soon it was time to face the freezing wind for a walk around.
So, what to say about the Village apart from the fact that I felt like I was right in the middle of a Friends' episode? . The place is thriving with young artists living in small yet charming apartments. Could even dare to say that the soul of Manhattan rests here in between fresh food markets, lovely small cafes (not a single Starbucks in miles) and fixed-gear bikes attached to railings and fire escape ladders.
Washington Square in the middle of it provided a nice stop for a picture and some time to play with the extremely friendly squirrels as we moved towards west to the Meatpacking District and The High Line, an impressive example of urban re-development.

This area around Chelsea was riddled a few years ago but in an effort of re-invent areas, an old elevated train track became a massive garden with a very modern design and scattered with art works and installations, ideal for a sunny walk when the weather is good which in our case it was, if you take out the extremely freezing wind knocking every piece of exposed skin down from the Hudson River.

Views of the Empire State overlooking the dark-red bricked buildings in Chelsea were stunning while on the left hand side of the High Line you could see a...housing state! probably the only one I saw in the whole island.
The walk takes you right into the heart of the Garment District where Chinese and Vietnamese share the outdated buildings with Pakistanis and Indians in a mix of souvenir shops, fake and cheap clothes and kebab outlets.

Next stop: Macy's!. As my friend was looking for "The Perfect Couch" for her apartment. I am particularly not fond into shopping but this store was crowded with people on its seven stores looking from baby clothes to whole sets of furniture leaded through charming wooden escalators and some terribly laid floor tiles. Still the perfect spot for bargains. "Will be coming back here on my way back to Dublin", I thought to myself.

So what could possibly be the best way to end such a beautiful day exploring the insights of a city getting out of the cliche? Have a lovely cup of hot chocolate overlooking Manhattan and the Chrysler Building! and my friend had the perfect spot. So a quick walk through the charming Bryant Park and its ice rink resting in between frozen water fountains and hot chocolate stands, we went into the Kimberly Hotel near Grand Central and enjoyed some lovely hot chocolate and warm popcorn while the city transformed itself again and the Chrysler building right in front of us was lit in a magnificent combination of colours.

My legs were tired and my jeans combined with the cold weather had burned off my legs (talk about friction here), so a few Subway combinations later I was in the hostel, having some dinner and applying some cold towel and moisturiser therapy over my burned skin while another day in the Big Apple was ending.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

-- NY on the go! --

After a night of sweating, dry throat and snoring which I blame to the high heating in the room, I assaulted the breakfast table and grabbed myself a nice cup of tea, some four glasses of orange juice and some toast with butter and jam, enough to give me energy and calories to face the freezing temperatures and blowing winds outside for yet another sightseeing day "a la japanese", just like the old times.

Had planned to do a general walkaround of Manhattan today and started by backtracking on the warm subway lines, outside the island to Brooklyn. First must-do in here: crossing the famous Brooklyn bridge on foot to appreciate one of the best views of New York.
This bridge was built in 1883 and was considered the longest suspension bridge in the world for a long time. It has now become an icon of The Big Apple over the emblematic East River with its old-fashioned neo-Gothic architecture and the nice foot/cycle path in the middle of it which took me over an hour to go across in between joggers, cyclists and another bunch of tourists photographing the early morning start in the borough of Brooklyn and the sun weakly reflecting over the massive glass blocks in the Financial Centre in Manhattan while commuters were crowding the bridge with cars and buses just under us.

My next stop after this very windy crossing was making my way through the high-rise buildings to Ground Zero. Now this is not a tourist attraction itself, but it's something I think people must visit to understand. A big wound in every New yorker's mind and a big empty space being filled by the impressive Liberty Tower (World Trade Centre 7) and adjacent similar buildings.
The atmosphere is heavy and you can still feel the vibes of a place that saw the worst some ten years ago. For a minute, just a reminder of how life can be so unpredictable and a feeling of gratefulness for having all of my beloved ones still with me.
Trying to get to the 9/11 Memorial is a different story. Massive queues of people who had ALREADY BEEN BOOKED TO GET IN ONLINE. So even if you are booked before, you still have to face massive queues. Off to a different place now while my camera's batteries keep acting up.

Just a few "blocks" up the road and I was walking around Chinatown!. Famous for its food and cheap stuff. More like a quick glimpse of the shiny cooked ducks hung off the shops and restaurant windows (they actually looked yummy) and lots of scattered tiny shops selling from fresh fruit to iPads and fake watches. A deja-vu of the Silk Market in Beijing perhaps?
Without noticing, a few minutes later I had entered Little Italy, a vague and small remain of what it once was a big community of immigrants living in this city. Still the best Italian food you could get, and for a very affordable price!
Lunch special consisted on a nice Caesar Salad, some garlic bread and some pasta Bolognesa, enough to fill my body with important carbohydrates for the next leg of the day: a walk uptown, passing through important places such as the iconic Flatiron building and Fifth Avenue to the Empire State Building.

Came here thinking queues were going to be massive but got in through the classic 1930's lobby (resembling Gotham City) to ticketing and security (bit obsessive?) without any hassle. Then off to the row of elevators that will bring you to the Observation Deck on the 86th floor where the strong winds would freeze any uncovered piece of skin but wouldn't be enough for hundreds of visitors to try to take the best shots of Manhattan: A stunning Chrysler building with the East River and Queens providing the perfect framing, Central Park surrounded by all sorts of buildings organized on straight lines and some skaters enjoying the ice rink down Bryant Park were a few views you could enjoy while the sun setting over New Jersey brought a melancholic orange light over the Financial District transforming buildings with a colourful festival of lights while the city was closing yet another busy business day.

Some two hours later (and about 80 pictures taken), it was time to take the row of lifts back to the lobby and walk down Times Square for a hot dog, a pretzel and a strong coffee for the way back to the hostel. Another successful sightseeing day just before tomorrow when I will be trying to get an insight of a day-to-day routine from someone living in the city.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

-- Bite o' the Big Apple --

Backpack was ready since last night, amazing how after two years you feel the need to carry presents and souvenirs for everyone, people who followed you, who believed in you, who really cared. So my luggage consisted in basically a leather jacket, some three t-shirts, swimming trunks, travel towel, a pair of jeans, basic underwear and about 7 kilograms worth in souvenirs.

It was early morning when I woke up in the cold Dublin winter, no sunshine as usual. Got dressed and without even managing to have breakfast due to a massive knot on my throat, product of anxiety and excitement, I took the good old 16A bus to the airport (the cheap option in Dublin) and after forty-something minutes of facing traffic across the city, brand new Terminal 2 was welcoming me and fellow travelers to shelter from the blistering winds and check-in for all the morning departures. My destination today: John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).
Also my first time flying long-haul on Aer Lingus and my first reasonably long flight in almost two years!.

I said my good-byes and went through security very quickly just before getting lost in the brand new terminal until finding the US Pre-clearance facility (that's right, you clear immigration in Dublin so flight arrives into the United States as a domestic one).
Same old standard questions by a rather friendly American immigration officer and I was just waiting to board "St. Patrick", Aer Lingus Airbus A330 flagship.

Oh the smell of a clean aircraft just before a long flight, you were terribly missed!. Boarding was hassle-free and the plane wasn't full at all. Cabin crew were very friendly in their shining green uniforms and as soon as the aircraft was de-iced we were rolling off the runway saying good-bye to Ireland and climbing up towards the Atlantic Ocean for a seven-hour transatlantic adventure.

Cookies, tea, ricotta ravioli with mince, dessert, an episode of Family Guy, four movies and the airshow playing on the seat besides mine (had the luck of having two seats for myself) and descent was announced while we were flying over New England.
Would like to say weather in New York was different from Ireland but that wasn't the case. Landing was very bumpy as we were avoiding black clouds and could barely see a bit of Long Island and Jamaica Beach just seconds before touchdown.

God bless time difference in these kind of days as it was still early enough to get my luggage, head into the city and do a lot of sightseeing for the day.
So as I said before, we followed an airport agent through the very busy Terminal 4 in JFK until we got to the baggage belts. Hassle-free. Backpack in hand and off to take the Airtran, an automated tram which I took a few minutes to figure out with the help of an old man coming from London who had taken it the other way around.
This tram takes you to the JFK metro station on the Subway Line A. First impression of taking a New York subway: Eclectic.
The line comes from Jamaica Beach and Queens so the ethnic variety was just amazing. Jamaicans, coloured people, latinos. They were all heading towards town while the little typical suburban houses were welcoming our entrance into a highly-populated Brooklin full of car dealers, Asian shops and take-out restaurants.

The old guy coming from London was a true New Yorker, born and raised in the Upper West Side and proud of it. He gave me a map of the subway system and while he explained me the differences between express and local lines, our train rapidly entered tunnels, shaking and vibrating until I got to my station in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My hostel was just around the corner.

I enjoy staying in hostels, specially after I worked in one as I can see the whole dynamics behind it. Check-in was in charge of a lovely half-latino girl and a few minutes later I was installed in my four-bed dorm along with a German guy that barely saw during my stay, a guy from Chicago and an Egyptian guy.

No time for resting or jet-lag. Camera in hands, leather jacket on and it was time to face the blistery winds and light snow walking around Central Park, surrounded by a rather romantic wintry dusk, naked trees and Victorian lamp posts that gave way to the massive buildings uptown and Broadway.
Walking around Broadway wasn't easy considering it was practically a wind tunnel and my light jeans and clothes coming from a mild Irish winter were not enough. At some point I couldn't even feel my hands!

The lights and massive billboards in Times Square helped me forget about the weather for a few minutes and my camera kept shooting and flashing for a reasonable amount of time. I was indeed in the heart of New York along with some other thousands of tourists taking every possible snap. Amazing how a bunch of billboards can create such an interesting environment, a rather annoyance becoming some kind of art and transforming buildings into landmarks.
Starbucks was my next stop to heat up my body (and recover feeling on my hands) with a large cup of black coffee and a light session of Facebook, including check-in's of course. Then off to Rockefeller a few "blocks" away to get hypnotized by the movement of people skating in this iconic ice rink under the sky scrappers lights (and the Lego shop).

Tired enough of a very busy day, decided to walk back to the hostel three kilometers uptown while wealthy New Yorkers were getting ready to go to bed and large apartments were being shown at their best through their windows and bright lights. Ration of pot noodles and chips, Skype and plan my next day with my maps and travel guide.

Good night for now. If the guy from Chicago stops snoring.

-- It's 2012 now --

How different things are since the last time I wrote something on this blog. It is not that I forgot that it existed, or about my dear readers who still leave me messages that I gladly reply. Many things have happened to this ex-trolley pusher.

Starting with the fact that from January onwards I decided to establish myself in Europe. Long gone are the dreams of going back to the Middle East, specially not after the last row of inefficiency and painful waiting for some news from those dusty lands. My life had been running around here for the past years and I have finally managed to embrace it and make it here. I could even say I am a bit Irish now.

Then I flew out to the Americas as planned before the holidays. Aer Lingus' own "St. Patrick" flew me across the pond to the city that never sleeps, the Empire State of Mind that never disappoint you. Then on for a quick turnaround to New England. Boston welcomed me with a quaint atmosphere full of snow and victorian architecture just before boarding a plane to sunny Costa Rica where I had the time of my life surfing and hiking.

Bolivia was the next stop and probably the whole purpose of my trip: see my beloved ones living there. A feeling I will be describing over the next posts as I will be writing about all of these destinations (more like transcribing everything off my Moleskine).

Coming back to Ireland after this long holiday was actually refreshing. A different feeling when landing in here. A smile.

I am no longer working on a hostel either. On my pursue of living the life at the fullest before I am old enough to be boring, I managed to crawl my way into a career pedaling!. Yes, I am a rider of one of Dublin's famous Ecocabs ( Taking people all around the city on free lifts and also adding a bit of a spark to their sightseeing experience in Dublin.

(Bit of a tricky job when it's pouring rain which happens a lot in Ireland).

My path is once more changing and soon will be time to pack the backpack, the big suitcase and the hand luggage to make yet another crossing, this time a bit shorter. Details will come soon, once I get my passport back!

In the meantime, I want to thank you all for sharing these experiences with me and over the next days will be writing about the trip itself.

See ya later!