First look, NYC

Sometimes we expect so much from life that we don’t believe reality when it stares us in the face. Visiting New York City was like that for me.

It wasn’t my first time in the US. I’d already been to Pasadena, Pleasanton, Oakland, Chicago, Portland, and Seattle. Coming from a third-world country, I’d already seen impeccable street order, clean pathways, organised traffic, and some cheery baristas. And so when my work trip landed my in NYC, I felt excited to see this greatest city in the world. From the airport, we drove towards 8th Avenue where we were to stay. It was the heart of the city, from what I knew, with Times Square and Fifth Avenue only a few blocks away.

NYC bridge

Williamsburg Bridge, NYC

However, before I set my eyes on either, I had other stuff to drop my jaw at—like the eleven road lanes I came across at one point on the highway. Home has two lanes on the highway for most routes, and four on the popular ones. And even that would be a squeeze. To see eleven vehicles driving parallel to each other, without honking, without breaking lanes, without swerving and swirling to overtake each other, was more than mesmerising. At long last, I began to understand the magnitude of the city I had flown into. As our driver explained the many landmarks we passed, my eyes never left the street. We cruised by the US Open tennis grounds as cars traffic was beginning to seep into the grounds—it was the opening day of the tournament, as our driver informed us, and people showed up four or five hours in advance.

We drove over the Williamsburg Bridge, with me googling at the Manhattan Bridge on the left. I crunched low on my seat to see the top of the highest building, swallowing hard when I heard what it’d cost to live there.

I hadn’t even made it into the city but I’d already felt overwhelmed.

And then we reached the city. We drove through 6th Avenue because our driver decided to show us some more extravagant buildings—buildings I’d remember forever, but don’t know the names of. Nevertheless, when we turned the corner, slowing down, I couldn’t wait to explore the city.

Eighth Avenue, NYC

Eighth Avenue, NYC

Trash. Uh oh. My beautiful image of the US was tearing at the seams. The street groaned with trash bags on either side, and in front of our hotel. Gulping down disappointment and immense surprise, I decided to ignore it. I’m used to far more trashy streets at home with cows, dogs, and goats ravaging the garbage bags on the streets—at least these are still intact, I told myself.

About 30 minutes later, my colleague and I set out to see what’s so great about the flashy NYC.

Our first stop was Times Square.

Times Square, NYC

Times Square

All my life, I’d never seen so many lights, stores, and advertisements in one place. I tried and failed (many times) to capture the whole thing on camera. I tried panoramas and videos, but realised that even though I can capture the buildings and the life of Times Square, I never can freeze its soul on a photo. I’m not much into shopping, and so I didn’t even feel like going into the stores, but I did linger breathing in the excitement. It seemed like there were so many people with various interests, and they all had something or the other to do in the area. Aside from the vanity shopping, individual artists displayed myriads of talent—from paintings and carvings to portraits and other random crafts, I saw so many things, objects, on sale. And to help lighten the tourist’s wallet there were “I Love NYC” stores selling countless souvenirs and merchandise. It was the first time that I’d seen a merchandise store on every other block. It’s an industry by itself, and as a chain of restaurants, it breeds on every street corner.

Broadway and Fifth Avenue weren’t far away.

We walked along the streets observing, taking in the grandeur as it swallowed us like a glacier. Every building was big, and every street crowded with tourists. And every street corner sported a few overflowing trash cans. Soda cups littered the roads, and musicians played unbeatable beats. One woman even broke into impromptu sing alongs and dance. It was 10 pm, and my parents thought I was fast asleep.

I felt as awake as ever, though. I’d woken up at 4 am and travelled through for most of the day, but I still didn’t need coffee to keep me going. The energy around me bubbled all the time, coating me in its enamel glow.

By the time we walked past The Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Centre, I didn’t even know the difference between one building and another. They were all big and grand, beautiful and gawk-worthy, but that was all.

That was all those buildings were to me, but for most people, tourists, visiting NYC, these buildings meant so much more. They are the epitome proof of their visit. The views from above the buildings are to swoon for, I’ve heard. Perhaps, they are. But as I walked around these commercial buildings designed and ticketed to attract tourist wealth, I realised how much I wasn’t a tourist. I don’t need to go up the Empire State Building to experience NYC. There’re so many other ways, other places, other experiences worth cherishing.

Like the Grand Central Terminal, for instance. Which I’ll relive in a separate post.



Sunrise in Chicago

Sunrise in Chicago

Tiny ray of hope

visible sun, only just

a high-rise city

Pasadena walks

Some of my most exceptional experiences in Los Angeles weren’t in the Santa Monica beach or the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Why even the eye-opening Griffith Observatory wasn’t the best of everything I did.

The one thing I treasure about every city I’ve ever visited is the time I spent walking around the city’s ordinary streets—not just the downtown areas, but also the residential parts of a town, the school district, the supermarket street—the places where locals feel most at home. These places are more than just an everyday thing for people. They’re their lifestyle, their comfort zone, places they prefer to spend time at. That’s what I love about a city—being a part of the locals’ lifestyle even only for a few hours.

Buildings in Pasadena

And so, not wanting to disturb my colleagues’ sightseeing plans, I stepped out onto the street early one morning just to see what’s what.

As I strode along the streets of Pasadena, I came upon architecture both old and new. Stores reaching for the sky barred at the early hours, mere hours away from playing host to the hundreds of folk who’d come in for bread and butter. Coffee shops buzzed with conversations, while vending machines whirred away, energised by the same Joe they poured out.

Political and social opinions drenched passers-by, with clever wordplay on signboards and uncanny shop names, their lights snuffed out, though not for long.

Summer sunlight streamed through the trees, touching buds with their golden rays, awakening birds, bees, and their birches too. The smell of warmth spread through the air as empty roads stretched before me, challenging me, mocking me, to go as far as I can go. I found myself following the light, towards familiar street names, reaching unfamiliar territories, halting for the traffic signs and crossing through broad walks, stepping on sidewalks with plants for aisles, and staring at a Tesla or a Mercedes, a Beetle or a BMW.

I had the whole town of Pasadena for myself.

And as the clock struck eight, like most people in the locality I entered Trader Joe’s. Unlike them, however, I was there for window shopping. On my way back to the hotel I stopped at the coffee shop I’d seen earlier, only now it was overflowing with breakfasters. Carrying my pumpkin pie about 20 minutes later, I walked back to where I stayed, ready to begin a day of work—just like any other person.

And that’s the difference between a tourist and a traveller. We experience far more than what’s on the brochures.