The centre of the world. Need I say more, or is that not a sufficient description of New York — one of the biggest, the liveliest, the craziest, and the most colourful cities known to man? After seven years, it's good to be back in the Big Apple. And it's good to see that, although a group of lunatics managed to destroy one of the city's most famous landmarks back in 2001, they failed to destroy even the teeniest fragment of New York's beautiful, and 100% unique, vibe and culture. Its heart and soul.
I wanted to send a New York postcard to my old host family back in Cusco, Peru, before I left for Boston. So this morning, I went to the Central Post Office, near Penn Station in Manhattan, to send off the postcard. Well, it turns out that going to the post office on Columbus Day is a Really Bad Idea™. The Central Post Office was, apparently, the only post office in all of Greater New York that was open today. I walked inside, and there was one service desk open (with the other 25 or so roller-doored shut), and nobody at the information booth, and a queue that was literally about 100 feet long (that's over 30 metres!). And all I wanted to do was buy a stamp. Stuff that — I'm not waiting 3 hours to buy a daym stamp — I'll send the bloody thing in Boston.
A good Thai curry is pretty hard to come by in South America (although on occasion, it can be found), so I've been suffering some serious Thai withdrawal. That's why tonight, for dinner in the city where any and every cuisine is available 24/7, I couldn't help but go for Thai. Went to a little joint up near the bottom of Central Park, on 9th Ave, and got some great chicken and stir-fried vegies, in a spicy coconut-milk soup. I'll save the Indian for when I get to London. And I'll save more Thai for... well, for Thailand!
It's been seven years since I was last in New York City. During my previous visit, in September 2000, I went up the famous twin towers of the World Trade Center, and I admired the then-fabulous view from the 110th floor. Today, for visitors to New York — courtesy of a small but extremely cruel and misguided group of radical individuals — that is no longer possible. Instead, thousands of visitors every year make the "pilgrimage" to what is now known internationally as Ground Zero. Today, I became one of these pilgrims, as I returned to this most confronting and tragic of sites. And like everyone else, I went there to mourn, to show support, and to pray; but mainly, just to see what the world's most famous hole in the ground actually looks like, and what they're doing with it.
One thing that I remember quite vividly about Manhattan, from my last visit here, is the honking. Manhattan drivers honk at each other all day long. They'll honk if they're bored. They'll honk to the radio. They'll honk jingle bells. They'll just honk away any old time. Which was why I was shocked to discover, when I started exploring Manhattan today, that an effort is being made to change this — everywhere you look, you can see signs saying: "Don't honk, $350 penalty". Fortunately, despite the signs, the honking continues, and enforcement of the new fascist honk-free régime appears to be minimal. Manhattan's famous, trademark noise lives on. Vive le honk!
So I'm walking down 2nd Ave in New York, looking for a place to eat. And what do I see, but a store that claims (in bold letters) to sell "New York's best egg cream". So what do I do? Of course, I go into the store, and I say to the (Pakistani) guy behind the counter: "give me an egg cream please". No — actually, I'm not a bald 50-year-old Jewish man, I'm an Aussie backpacker; so I say "I'll grab an egg cream thanks, mate". And I must say, it did taste pretty good. You don't have to be Jewish to understand this — but as they say, it wouldn't hoyt. :P
Well, what do you know? It's Columbus Day long weekend, this weekend in America! And to celebrate, here in New York, today they had a big parade all along Manhattan's famous central boulevard, 5th Avenue. I'm not sure exactly what Columbus Day's for — and when I asked some locals what the story is behind it, they just said "I dunno, but we get Monday off" — so I guess it's a bit like our Queen's Birthday long weekend; it's just one of those holidays that you have, because as far as long weekends go, any excuse is a good excuse. Every country's gotta have at least one like that, right? Anyway, I just stumbled into the parade while I was wandering through Manhattan today, and I was pleasantly surprised with what I found.
So here I am in New York City, in the beating heart of the USA. And what do I hear in my first hour outside today, walking down the streets of Manhattan? Do I hear "let's go for coffee", "put it in the trunk", or "you want that to go"? Not a chance! Every 5 seconds, it's "qué cabrón es mi primo", "hasta once y media", and "estamos tardes, vamos". What's going on — have I left Latin America, or what?! I could barely put one foot in front of the other, in this city, without hearing people talking Spanish, seeing shop signs in Spanish, and even giving passers-by directions in Spanish! Seriously: "¿donde están los gringos?" (lit: "where are all the gringos?"). Apparently, Spanish is just as useful back here in the USA, as it is down south of the border — in some neighbourhoods, perhaps even more useful than English.
The Chelsea International is one of the most popular backpacker joints in New York City. Located close to the heart of downtown Manhattan, it's the most expensive hostel I've ever stayed at (and really, it's nothing special), although it's about as cheap a place as you can get on this island. The only real bells and whistles that they have here are: a kitchen that all guests are free to use; and a nice grassy area and a set of tables, out in the backyard. Their other services — e.g. Internet, laundry, food, airport pickups — all cost extra. It's not the most amazing hostel I've ever stayed at; but it's got a nice mixed crowd of backpackers, and it's fairly good value for New York.
After I arrived in New York this evening, and got through immigration, my first order of business was finding a hostel in which to spend the night. Considering that it was 12:30am by the time I got past the gates, I was kinda dreading this a bit. I hadn't made a reservation anywhere, as — unlike for the South American hostels — none of the hostels here in New York accept simple "online booking requests"; all that they accept online is a live advance credit-card payment, which I wasn't prepared to make. Anyway, I knew it wouldn't be fun searching for a bed at this hour on a Saturday night; but I never imagined that it would be this hard! I had the phone numbers of 6 different hostels: I called all of them; and of the places that I called, 3 didn't respond, and the other 3 were fully booked. Apparently it's Columbus Day long weekend here at the moment, and New York is packed with visitors. Just my luck, eh?