Written by: NAVEENA ISRANI
Photos by: SATYAN ISRANI
If you’re on a one-month travel extravaganza, it doesn’t get any bigger than the Big Apple. One of the most vibrant and significant metropolises on the globe, New York is an adrenaline-charged, history-laden place that holds immense appeal for all visitors. At the same time, it’s the most beguiling city in the world – it’s got its fair share of the poor and homeless, along with world-class museums, big statues, even bigger buildings, outrageous excess and a whole lot of bling-bling!
But let’s start at the beginning. We got an idea about how big a deal NY really is even before we left aamchi Mumbai! We had anticipated long, serpentine queues and tight security at the airport, but we certainly weren’t prepared for an identity crisis! Well, the thing is, I had carried both my old and new passports, and the Continental Airlines staff just couldn’t recognise me as per my old passport photo, since it was taken 15 years ago! I tried reasoning with them that they should check my new passport instead, since that carried my latest photo, but to no avail. After much deliberation and questioning – during which two staffers alternately stared at me and my passport for 15 minutes – I was identified by the infamous cut on my right eyebrow and ‘cleared’ to depart for the US of A!
Finally, we boarded our non-stop flight to Newark Liberty International Airport, hoping to be pampered for the next 16 hours. In retrospect, that seems wishful thinking. Leave alone pampering, we weren’t even served a glass of water for the first two hours, despite repeated pleas! It seemed the air-hostesses just couldn’t be bothered with lesser mortals (read ‘desis’) like us, when they had more important customers to attend to in business class. To make matters worse, the in-flight entertainment system was faulty. As a result, we saw a three-hour Bollywood blockbuster in one hour flat, because it was shown in fast-forward mode! The only service we got was during meal times, which was punctuated by repeated requests from an old Gujarati lady seated beside me. Since she didn’t know a word of English or Hindi, I had to continuously act as an interpreter between her and the air-hostess, enquiring about her food, wheel-chair and immigration requirements. By the time we landed, the old lady had adopted me as her daughter and bestowed me with enough blessings to last a lifetime! And so it was that our first trip to the US got off to an eventful start…
We were staying with my sister-in-law’s family in Jersey City, just one station away from New York City. It was a cosy apartment overlooking the Hudson river, with a fantastic view of the Manhattan skyline.
The only sound in this serene neighbourhood was the constant whirring of the security choppers patrolling the Hudson. Though there wasn’t much to see in New Jersey, I found its peaceful charm quite endearing. Whether it was driving through Harrison, or checking out the sprawling campuses of New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers Institute at Newark, or bagging great discounts at Newport mall, Jersey Gardens mall, Macy’s, Wal-Mart, BJ’s and Shop Rite, or simply walking along the Pier… New Jersey really appealed to my senses in a way that very few can comprehend.
Nevertheless, New Jersey can never match up to the glitz and hyperactive buzz of New York. As first-time visitors, we found it fascinating how one ‘Path’ – the underground rail that runs below the Hudson, connecting NJ to NYC – can highlight the tale of two cities. New York’s cacophony is as compelling as New Jersey’s calmness. NYC’s constantly throbbing with activity and the people seem to be in a mad rush all the time. Whether it’s the smart executive in a business suit, or the college student working part-time for extra pocket money, or that uber-cool single mother who’s toiled her way up the corporate ranks, everyone’s always busy here.
It’s hard to put a finger on what makes the place buzz so hard, but the city’s hyperactive rush keeps drawing more and more people to it. As a result, Manhattan is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
Wandering the streets here, you’ll cut between high-rise buildings that are icons to the modern age – glass and steel giants of epic proportions, each of them stretching up into the sky, trying to outgrow its neighbours. The streets are notoriously hard to navigate and traffic is like nowhere else. To top it all, the constant blaring of sirens – be it the cops, ambulance or a fire engine – can really unnerve newcomers. And then there’s Wall Street, with its famous Merrill Lynch Bull, George Washington statue, Trinity Church and of course, the New York Stock Exchange – the financial heart of the world.
You can spend weeks in New York and still barely scratch the surface, but there are some key attractions – and some pleasures – that you won’t want to miss. The best way to explore the Big Apple is to take it in small bites, like we did. Topmost on our list was of course, the Statue of Liberty – France’s gift to USA, which has become one of America’s most revered symbols. The statue is located on Liberty Island and can be reached via ferry from Battery Park in downtown Manhattan.
Even though we went on a weekday, there were long queues and the atmosphere was almost festive – the park was teeming with throngs of brightly-clad tourists; several people dressed as Lady Liberty were posing with the tourists; colourful festoons adorned the trees; hot dogs and ice-cream were being sold by the dime a dozen; cartoonists were drawing people’s caricatures in five minutes flat for $10; and several musicians were entertaining the crowds by playing the saxophone, synthesiser, violin, drums or just plain karaoke!
It took us over an hour to traverse the queue and board the ferry, after which it was a 15-minute ride to the island.
My first glimpse of the statue left me awe-struck! Even though we’ve seen it on TV so many times, coming face-to-face with the real thing and its sheer enormity left us mesmerised. Including the base and pedestal, the statue stands 305 feet tall. The torch in Liberty’s right hand is a symbol of enlightenment, while the seven spikes in her crown indicate the seven seas and continents. Her broken shackles signify escape from tyranny – no wonder this statue has become a symbol of freedom throughout the world.
Another not-to-be-missed landmark is the Empire State Building – the tallest skyscraper in NYC, rising till 102 storeys. It sticks out of the skyline like a torch in the sky and is one of New York’s most noticeable icons.
The building was made familiar to movie-buffs when the lovesick gorilla, King Kong, dangled over its side with Fay Wray clutched in his hairy hand! It took us one hour to reach the observation deck on the 86th floor, but it was worth the wait. As we stepped out on to the rooftop, the outside noise seemed to disappear and give way to a completely new, breath-taking world. The view was spectacular to say the least! Thousands of twinkling lights sparkled in the night sky as New York City lay spread out in front of us – like a dream waiting to be explored. And in that iconic moment, we understood why the Empire State Building provides inspiration and romance to all its admirers…
Next on our agenda was a guided tour of the United Nations Building, which includes a visit to the chambers of Security Council, Trusteeship Council, Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly.
The exhibits on decolonisation and disarmament left us in awe, even as we admired the various works of art, including tapestries, murals, mosaics and sculptures. The most fascinating of these was the Norman Rockwell Mosaic – presented to the UN by Nancy Reagan in 1985 – which depicts the coming together of people from all religions.
But the highlight of the tour was the sudden appearance of the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, himself. He emerged from one of the chambers and waved to us as he passed by, smiling amusedly at our gaping faces!
A visit to NYC is incomplete without a visit to Central Park. Termed as the city’s backyard, it’s an oasis for city-dwellers to relax in the midst of nature.
The park is huge – running from 59th to 110th Street and is spread over 843 acres. It has meadows, lakes, boating, scenic hills, a wildlife centre, skating rink and even a castle! But navigating through the park is quite confusing – in fact, I was relieved to see we weren’t the only tourists who got lost and kept referring to the maps located at each intersection!
Those interested in New York’s seafaring past will enjoy walking through South Street Seaport, from where the famous Brooklyn Bridge is visible. As we walked through the port’s cobblestone streets and toured the sailing vessels docked there, we were told this was the place where the opening scene of ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’ was shot, in which Preity Zinta was shown jogging. Being a movie buff, this immediately got me excited and I made a mental note to brag about this to my friends!
And finally, how can I forget the throbbing pulse of NYC… the place which makes the city come alive like no other place on Earth… the world wonder called Times Square!
My first glimpse of Times Square was on the stroke of midnight, just when I turned a year older… yup, I ushered in my birthday on Times Square and it sure was a memory of a lifetime! Bright neon lights and LED signs everywhere, huge digital video screens flashing thousands of live images, animated billboards vying for attention, along with the headquarters of Reuters, MTV, Viacom, Ernst & Young, Morgan Stanley… the list is endless. The most striking feature here is the curved seven-storey Nasdaq sign on 43rd Street, which cost $37 million to build. Standing 120 feet tall, it’s the world’s largest live digital screen and is a spectacle in itself. As for tourists like us, the Madame Tussauds wax museum and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum are must-see attractions.
At all times of the day or night, Times Square is teeming with people, restaurants, hotels, and of course, the famous Broadway theatres. Eager to experience the magic of Broadway, we decided to watch the latest attraction, ‘Mary Poppins’, at the New Amsterdam theatre. This musical adaptation about a magical English nanny was as good as Broadway musicals get. It was big, bright, full of life and loaded with one memorable song after another.
Ashley Brown, who plays Mary Poppins, would have done Julie Andrews proud, while Gavin Lee, who plays Burt, has certainly made a mark with his Broadway debut. Apart from the excellent performances, the music, dance, costumes, staging and lighting was mind-blowing! As the sets kept changing seamlessly from one to the other, we were transported to a different world altogether – a world full of enchantment, excitement, glitz and glamour!
There’s lots more to see in NYC, be it the different ethnic neighbourhoods like lower Manhattan’s Chinatown and Little Italy, or the more artsy SoHo (South of Houston), or the various museums scattered across the city. The most celebrated among these is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the ‘Met’, as it’s popularly called.
The two-million-square-foot building houses a series of collections, each of which ranks among the finest in the world, be it the American wing, European paintings, Medieval and Renaissance art, Modern & Contemporary art, Islamic, Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean & Greek art, not to mention the impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist canvases.
Though I’m not much of an art connoisseur, I did notice that many of the works were by Pablo Picasso.
But what do you do in the Big Apple if you’re not the sight-seeing, touristy type? Well, you shop, of course! New York, the shopping capital of the world, has something for all budgets. For the avid consumer, the choice of shops is vast, almost numbingly exhaustive, in this heartland of the great capitalist dream. And the deals are yours for the asking. Every few weeks, there’s some sale or the other – we were lucky to bag some great discounts during the Columbus Day sale!
The best way to taste what the city has to offer is to stroll down Fifth Avenue, one of the world’s most famous shopping streets. The high quality shops and designer outlets that line this street are filled with luxuries from around the world, catering to those who are looking for, and can afford, the best… from Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany’s, Brooks Brothers and Harry Winston to Cartier, Gucci, LVMH, Versace, Prada and more.
One thing that struck me in NYC was that everyone’s crazy about ‘brands’ – while someone swears by Banana Republic and Gap, another wouldn’t be caught dead in anything but a Prada! But the quintessential brands that bind all New Yorkers together are Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Whether you’re walking down the street during peak office traffic, or taking the subway during rush hour, or travelling in those infamous yellow New York cabs, you’ll have to be really short-sighted to miss either of these brands.
However, one thing that NYC (and maybe the whole of USA) lacks is knowledge about vegetarianism. Most people just don’t understand what this word means. I found this out the hard way when I asked for a veg burger at McDonald’s. The attendant at the counter just stared at me blankly as though I had come from another planet! When I elaborated by saying, “No meat, no fish, no egg,” he got even more flustered and called his colleague for help. But this other chap was no better – on hearing my request, he promptly offered me a turkey sandwich! That’s it, I turned on my heel and fled… The only vegetarian item which saw me through my stay in the US was cheese pizza. But before you get too optimistic, keep in mind that while cheese pizza has only cheese on it, cheese burger has beef in it… veggie-lovers be damned!
Another thing I learnt from the Big Apple is that someone’s always watching you. Whether you’re at the airport, shopping mall or subway, security cameras are constantly spying on your every move… which I discovered to my consternation at a secluded subway station one night. I was waiting for an elevator, when suddenly, a voice emanated from nowhere, “Young lady, stop playing with the buttons!” I jumped in fright, frantically looking all around me, wondering who was speaking, and to whom. The stern command was repeated several times, before I realised it had come from a speaker near the elevator switch, and the person being spoken to was none other than me!
Apparently, someone waiting for the elevator before me had pressed the button several times, before running away. This had alerted the security camera mounted behind the elevator and since I was the only one standing at the scene of the crime, I was the likely culprit. I hastened to clarify my innocence and was let off with a stern warning. Phew! Uncle Sam’s sure got his eyes on me…
I can go on and on about the Big Apple, but words cannot fully describe the grand scale of this behemoth. Whether gazing at the flickering lights of the midtown skyscrapers, or admiring the celebrated architecture of corporate Manhattan, or walking down star-struck on Broadway, or simply wasting the morning on the Staten Island ferry, you really would have to be made of stone not to be moved by it all. While the events of 9/11 shook the city to its core, the maverick quality of New York and its people still shines as brightly as ever.
Some people may consider the Big Apple to be over-hyped, over-crowded, notoriously hyperactive and overtly fashion-conscious, while others may be awed by its iconic status, diversity, zest for life and glamour. But whether you love it or hate it, one thing’s for sure – you just can’t ignore it!
(Note: A modified and shortened version of the above article was published in the ET Travel section of The Economic Times on 13 December, 2007. I have reproduced the original version here for the reading pleasure of fellow Ghumakkars.)