Egypt. Venice. Turkey. The top three destinations on my must-visit wish list. Europe, Australia and South East Asia are some of the other places I want to travel to. The US has never been high on my list of priorities. Yet, for my first international vacation as an adult traveling on my own money, I chose New York City.
Why you ask? Well, my wee lil baby sister lives there and I have a US visa courtesy my office. The official trip fell through, but I figured the visa shouldn’t be wasted.
I managed to wrangle a 3-week vacation, and decided to spend that time in NYC, Washington and Orlando. I could have rushed through a few more places, but I wanted to soak in the atmosphere instead of checking things off an imaginary things-every-tourist-must-see-and-do list.
The differences between the US and India were palpable almost from the moment I got off the plane. Within the first few moments, I saw both the famous American rudeness courtesy an airport ground staff member who harangued a bunch of passengers who were standing unobtrusively in one corner and quickly filling out their immigration form, and American friendliness, as another staffer patiently explained the immigration process to an elderly man on a wheelchair who was evidently visiting the US for the first time.
Walking out of the airport, the first sight that greeted me was a line of yellow New York taxi cabs. That’s when the feeling of being abroad really sunk in, and the excitement mounted. So what if I never had New York City on my places to visit before I die list.
The wee sister lives in Weehawken, New Jersey. The cheapest way to get there was by the bus – the cab charges $40 from Port Authority, opposed to the bus, which takes $2.50 for the 7-minute ride – which we took from the Port Authority bus station. That was a bus station? It was HUGE! The advertisements called it a place to hang out and have fun…and maybe even take a bus. If you really wanted to hang out at a bus station, you could choose to go there for a meal, a quick coffee or deserts, and even to do some quick shopping! Plus, it was clean, and despite the huge number of people, it was quiet! A sharp contrast to Delhi’s main bus terminal (for inter-state travel), which is a huge, sprawling, littered cacophony of noise and smells.
Being a tourist in a foreign land with a limited amount of money means that you have to do the unthinkable and use public transport. I rarely use public transport in India. My only experience is with the Mumbai local train, which most people in my adopted city of Delhi find nightmarish. I mastered the trick of using the local early on, though. Positioning. Position yourself in the middle of the crowd waiting to board or disembark from the train, and the mass of humanity will push you in the right direction. You really don’t need to do anything else. In Delhi, though, I either drive or call for a cab. So the thought of having to use the New York subway gave me the heebie-jeebies. Until I got to the subway station. And got into the tube. No pushing and shoving. No touching and feeling. Even if the compartment was crowded and there was no place to sit. What a revelation that was! If someone accidentally bumps into you they immediately apologize and try to create some more space. Which is so welcome after the uncouth Delhi men. Though that also means that I had to be careful about invading someone elses space. Stand too close (like at an arm’s length away from someone) to a person and you’re likely to attract dirty glances. In India, we’re used to this kinda closeness. To people glancing over your shoulder at the cash counter, for example, to look at what you’ve purchased. Or to just stare at you. Yeah, that happens a lot. You just get used to it. So being ‘invisible’ in the US felt…good!
Then there’s the politeness. Though my uncle, who has been in the US since, like, forever, calls it a ‘chocolate’ society, as a tourist, you’ll find that the people are friendly. And friendly starts from your bus driver. Who you actually greet when you get on. And thank when you get off. Amazing. Especially since I come from a country where drivers are transparent. Seriously. Though in the US, so are we women. The people may be friendly and polite and nice, but no one really looks at you. Even if you wear clothes that show more than they hide. No lecherous stares. No lewd comments. No sleazy men following you around. Liberating!
Then there’s the sense of fun. If they like something, they’re vocal about it. Like on a Thursday outside Macy’s on 34th and Broadway, there was a free Zumba class. People kept joining in. Spectators watched. Tourists took pictures. And when they finished, everyone cheered and clapped and hooted. In India, you wouldn’t catch anyone doing anything like that out in public in the middle of the day. Ever. Nor would you find couples on the street or in the park, train, shop or restaurant smooching or hugging or publicly displaying affection. Not that it doesn’t happen at all, but let’s just say that it’s restricted to high-end malls and isn’t quite that blatant.
Ingrained with that sense of celebration is a love for parks. For sitting under the shade of a tree (or even out in the sun on the steps of a monument) listening to music, having lunch, working, relaxing. Which is probably why you’ll find a small park on almost every street. With a Witch store selling sandwiches and coffee. And more often than not, in those parks and on the streets (and even inside stores!) you’ll find fashionable New Yorkers with their four-legged friends (almost always dogs). You can’t go more than a few steps without spotting a dog and its owner. And if you, dear tourist, want to experience what that’s like, you can buy yourself a dog-shaped balloon that skims across the road alongside or behind you. Yes, really!
Fashionable, vibrant, bustling, always-awake New York – you own a piece of my heart!
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