12.09.2011 - 21.10.2011
We arrived into New York at a humanely hour via JetBlue from L.A, which was really a pleasant five hour trip. (yes, it really is possible for a five hour flight to be pleasant - Jet Star could take some good lessons from JetBlue). Despite the plane being almost completely full, the trolley dollies were extremely attentive and we had HEAPS of legroom, even in the cheap seats. It was great to see the unspoken, universal rule of ‘not dropping your seat back’ observed by almost everyone, particularly those seated in front of us. We sat next to a young woman I am convinced was Gumby in disguise – contorting herself into the smallest ball possible and who proceeded to sleep in that position with her hoodie covering her face for almost the entire flight duration. I spoke with her at the end of the flight – convinced she was some type of dancer only to be disappointed she was not.
Walking around with a backpack gives you a bit of interstanding on what it’s like being a turtle. We navigated our way through New York’s subway system to the room we’d booked (with some initial hesitation) in an apartment through a website called Air BnB, where people rent out their second/spare bedrooms.
I’ll take a moment here to expand on the Air Bnb experience. During our initial trip research I looked at the usual array of hotels, motels, Bed & Breakfast and Hostels in an effort to get a feel for what things cost, and how this might translate into the reasonableness of where we might sleep (would we have to camp for example to stay on budget and really, how feasible was that??). I found a number of alternate accommodation arrangements including Couchsurfing (which at no cost, seemed even better, but I’m yet to convince Weps about this) and Air Bnb. At the time, there weren’t many reviews about Air Bnb and I was keen to read more of people’s experience with it. Since then, the use of Air Bnb seems to have escalated exponentially, with that organisation professionalising a little more including brining onboard someone from Ebay. The website is simple and intuitive, and the whole booking/money changing hands via credit card works really well. Whilst you pay upfront, Air Bnb act as an escrow agency by holding your funds until you ‘check out’ so to speak. We’ve had to change a booking date despite prepaying, and were correctly credited at the time with no hassle. You type in the name of the city you’re looking for accommodation in, and results can be sorted by price, location, recommendations, etc. Visitors to the property leave a review about the property, and the host reviews you as a guest. That arrangement hopefully minimises any axe-murderer concerns on both sides.
The diversity of accommodation options available on Air Bnb range from a blow-up mattress in someone’s living room (cheap), to a whole castle in France (sell a kidney on ebay), and everything in-between. There’s an interesting novelty section that includes boats (a shark-boat in California anyone?), treehouses (no kidding – there are some pretty damn fancy and expensive treehouses around the world), art-deco caravans, teepees, igloos, shipping containers and any other non-house type of lodging you could possibly think of (including 14 yurts in various countries).
We found a three bedroom apartment in Harlem, where each room was individually rented with the owner living in the apartment below. It gave us access to a washing machine and dryer, full kitchen, a great patio space on the roof, living room including cable tv, free wireless access AND breakfast for just $72 a night. The only alternate New York accommodation otherwise available to us at this price was likely to be in a filthy, rowdy broom closet (read hostel dorm room) full of drunk 20-somethings (are we getting too old?). In three cities so far, Air Bnb has provided us with a much more comfortable, roomier and cheaper option than a double room with shared bathroom in a hostel.
We also had some initial reservations about the reputation of Harlem which disappeared too. We stayed in a residential area with mostly Dominican-Republicans. For our first night in New York we ventured about a block away to a local Columbian food takeaway, where we were the only English speakers. That’s New York I guess. Our apartment was near a Cemetary which we found open one Sunday morning and spent some interesting time wandering through headstones from the 18th century.
One afternoon we also witnessed the end of a Baptist funeral, with older ladies in their bleach-white dresses, gloves and hats spilling out from the church.
Our first day in New York was all about orientation – finding our way to the subway and back, and attempting to find a non-contractual US data sim card that would allow us to use the GPS on our phone. This apparently, is like trying to find a lost penny in Central Park and we discovered it was cheaper to use Skype on the computer (at .03 cents a minute) where there is strong (and free) Wifi.
Over the next few days we did the usual tourist things – attended a great show on Broadway (Wicked), strolled across the Brooklyn Bridge, meandered through Central Park (watched a local game of softball), people watched at Times Square and had the quintessential hotdog, pretzel and New York Deli sandwhich experience. Our tip is DO NOT order a deli sandwhich unless you’ve had nothing to eat for several weeks, or are otherwise able to share the meal with a table full of people. We’re talking MASSIVE sandwhiches here. In the end, we ate what we could and then took a literal doggy bag (about a kilo) of leftover deli meat to our apartment for our hosts’ dogs. It made us feel a little guilty about wasting so much food while Africa starves. On the dog point – we still don’t get how people can live with dogs inside their units but lots of New Yorkers seem to do it. Further, it seems that lots of people in Canada travel with their pet – we stayed in a Hotel in Dartmouth (Nova Scotia), where dogs were allowed on the 2nd and sixth floors, and encountered plenty more hotels where no pets was a common theme – common enough to make us think that people try and take their pet into hotels with them. At one hotel we had to check a box on the guest rego form specifically declaring we had no pets – personally I could not imagine trying to travel Paris Hilton-style with a Chihuahua tucked in my backpack.
We’re certainly not the first people to describe New York with words like big, diverse, busy, loud, brash, bright, non-stop and edgy. So much about the place is ironic. We could have comfortably shared every singly meal we’ve had here due to the large serving sizes, and at the same time, every day we encountered people begging. It was a common sight seeing beggars on or near the subway (bigger audience I guess). Some entered playing musical instruments asking for donations, some were selling chocolate, others just walked along subway carriages asking for small change. The other observation in New York is ‘the rush’. People filled with busy-ness and (sometimes self-inflated) importance, with a focus on wealth, and material possessions, and vanity. (Mind you – this doesn’t just happen in New York of course, however in a city of some 9 million people it tended to be more visible). In the space of five minutes we walked past ridiculously expensive consumer and fashion goods on 5th Avenue (which, for the 10th year running, is the most expensive shopping district in the world at 16,704 Euros per square metre per year, that’s some massive rental overhead before you even open the doors…) and then past a homeless man in the subway who had clearly shit in his pants.
We also visited the largest Toys’R’Us store in the world, and the M&M store in Times Square. Whilst entertaining, it continued to reminded us of excessiveness. The M&M store is basically three floors of ‘stuff’ marketing a single chocolate brand. You name it - you can buy it with said logo attached
We also stumbled across the small sign highlighting the Earth Cam camera (earthcam.com) in Times Square, texting some of Wep's friends at the time who visited the website and were able to watch us live, grinning and waving at the camera, somewhat dwarfed by the billion illumated screens and trillion visitors in Times Square.
Our experience also included a trip to Greenwhich Village – the well-known gay area of town, including a stop at the famous ‘Stonewall Inn’ – the place of a gay uprising in the 60’s that opened the way for gay rights and some of the acceptance we are thankful for today. We stopped and had a beer but very much felt we weren’t part of the ‘hood’, despite being ‘family’. There were two grooms and a small group of people celebrating a gay wedding that occurred earlier that day.
Greenwhich Village is a great place for an interesting history walk and we finished the day with an amazing pizza from an old Pizza shop on Bleecker Street – the same street lined with an amazing variety of food shops including a shop dedicated to cheese, a cupcake shop, Italian deli and several bakeries.
We love free things on our trip and were able to visit the Museaum of Modern Art (MOMA) one Friday evening for FREE where we were wowed by wonderful art across all eras and artists including Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Kahlo, Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” (the melting clocks) and several Andy Warhol pics (Marilyn and Elvis).
Finding a public toilet in New York is sometimes the biggest priority of your day (there’s a real opportunity here for a (decent) iphone app – a Public Toilet Map of New York City). Starbucks sometimes comes good, but there’s always a line-up. The other task that consumed some of our time was locating a decent milk-based coffee. Whilst Starbucks has a good choice of sweetened coffees and the usual standard percolated dishwater-style of coffee, we are really spoilt in Australia for good coffee. In fact a few Australians recognized this and have set up decent coffee shops in the New York area (including one in Brooklyn), taking advantage of that opportunity. I don’t want to sound too ethnocentric in this blog (‘things are much better at home’) but we really do miss good coffee.
Weps was determined to try all the junk food outlets however after several weeks of this, we longed for a ‘home cooked meal’ and found a can of ravioli for $1.89 at our local dodgy deli, mixed with some lovely fresh broccoli from the Chelsea Farmer’s market and voila – a great, cheap, nutritious home cooked meal for under $5.
We celebrated my birthday with a really great dinner at the Village, and an attempted visit to the ‘Cubby Hole’ where it was cheap margarita night and being unable to finish even one margarita, we decided we were both beyond going out. Next stop - Canada.