This is going to be a long one, but bear with me, there are going to be some bare breasted women along the way!
With so little time left on our RTW trip we were glad to get to spend a few days in one of the world's most famous cities. Usually we opt for staying away from massive metropolitans or at least going through them quickly, but New York City turned out to be surprisingly easy going and navigable. And we weren't staying in the suburbs either, we had booked an accommodation in Manhattan, the buzzling center of capitalism. For seven days and six nights we made our way through the urban jungle and got to see some of its most spectacular sights in a surprisingly low budget. Turns out the Big Apple isn't as expensive as I would have imagined. The rest of it, however, was just as promised by every movie and TV show ever made.
Upon leaving Salem Oregon we mentioned to my exchange year hosts that we were going to be staying in a youth hostel in Harlem. This almost made the host mother choke on her food. Harlem has a reputation of being somewhat seedy due to the high unemployment rate and the resulting poverty, which have been particularly evident among African Americans who constitute the vast majority of the population. In the end it wasn't so bad though and truth be told it wasn't anything we hadn't seen before. Sure our next door neighbor in the Harlem YMCA made the smoke alarm go off at 1 a.m. by smoking some weed in his room and then resumed to wander around the hostel in his underpants trying to find someone who could turn it off. Sure we saw a woman in her twenties drop her pants at the subway station and start cleaning her nether regions with baby wipes. Sure we mainly stayed indoors when it was dark outside. But other than that it was OK.
The YMCA hostel was a pretty decent place to stay, we had a small double room with a bunk bed and cable TV, the toilet facilities were shared. Everything was maintained clean with daily housekeeping, the wifi worked well and the bathrooms had an amazing view to the skyline of downtown Manhattan. Our room was in the tenth floor and we paid $91.30 per night for it, which was pretty good considering what the other places were asking. We also got to use all of the fitness facilities in the Y, which meant free access to the gyms, pool and most fitness classes. Sini used the gym and went to a few classes which she found pretty good and she also enjoyed the sauna in the locker room. All in all we really got more for less at the YMCA hostel, not having to pay for a very large selection of things to do under their roof.
Harlem was a good place to stay also because it was easy to get out of. Roads in upper- and mid-Manhattan are named so that the ones going more or less east to west are called streets as opposed to the ones going south to north that are either avenues or boulevards. The streets are extremely simple to follow since starting from the south they are called 1st Street, 2nd Street, 3rd Street and so on. Our hostel was on the 135th Street where we had easy access to multiple different metro stations with different lines going through them. We also found that it was easy enough to walk to Central Park which starts from 110th Street.
We walked the 25 blocks to Central Park almost every day and thought nothing of it. We like walking because it's free and also because it allows you to see things you would otherwise miss. On our first full day in NYC we walked the entire length of the 2.5 mile long park both ways. Pictured in countless movies and TV shows the park is a truly magnificent landmark of the otherwise condensed and stressful island. The green expanse is dotted with all kinds of curious things both big and small and you can find New Yorkers from all walks of life and every socioeconomic status enjoying it with you. On a short stroll you will pass people having lunch on the benches while others walk their dogs or lay in their bikinis on the grass. Local baseball teams use the many fields as practice grounds and parents take their children to enjoy the numerous playgrounds or countless daytime summer camps. There are people having a picnic, people jogging to stay in shape, people commuting to work on bicycles. Time seems to move slower in this space which pulls people towards it with great gravity. In a place as busy as Manhattan, the Central Park may well be the only thing keeping the population healthy and sane.
Walking in Central Park literally forces one to slow their pace because finding your way can be troublesome. In one occasion we started from the northern part and attempted to make our way to the eastern one, only to find ourselves standing on the street lining the park's western side. Opposite to the rest of Manhattan, there are no straight paths in Central Park. Be it a gravel road or a paved one, there are always endless turns and twists, some of which will take you directly towards the direction you started from. There are very few dead ends but we managed to find some anyway. While the rest of the island is completely flat on ground level the park has some minor elevation changes, enough to make it impossible to see very far past the nearest hill. Usually the path you have chosen makes a steep turn right after reaching the top of a hill, forcing you to reassess your planned route. Following the major veins of traffic is easier than this, but this forces you to walk next to the wide paved roads occupied mainly by bicyclists who are not allowed anywhere else. Another simple place to walk at is around the large Reservoir lake where you can get some great views of the towering buildings in lower-Manhattan. Some people still manage to do this wrong, by not following the clearly marked counter clockwise direction of traffic.
Another great feature of the park is the abundance of drinking fountains and public toilets. All in all it was surprisingly easy to get a free drink in Manhattan, we always carried two small water bottles with us and found plenty of places to fill them up at. We also enjoyed the park's wildlife which included not only ducks and squirrels but also turtles and raccoons. Our favorite part was probably near the northeastern corner just south of Harlem Meer where we found the Observatory Garden. While most of the park is fairly open grassland and the northwestern corner surprisingly bushy, the gardens we found on our last day in NYC were pretty and well taken care off. We donated the last of our cash there, meaning a few remaining pennies, to a fountain full of gold fish.
After walking through the park on our first day we found ourselves in desperate need of some food. We hadn't had a proper lunch or a dinner the day before when we were flying to NYC from Oregon and our breakfast had consisted of our remaining snacks. Hence when we saw some bright lights and large screens from the southern end of Central Park we headed towards that direction suspecting to find a burger joint or two there. We ended up walking quite a bit in the end without finding anything which was curious because during our road trip in western United States fast food places had been everywhere. Eventually we located a McDonald's and ate there even though it is clearly the most boring option anywhere. The food did what it was supposed to do, however, and we emerged from the restaurant rejuvenated and with a re-established ability to look around. We had accidentally made our way to Times Square. Famous for just being famous the square is packed with people standing in awe of the massive billboards and screens advertising mainly Coca Cola. It's a great place for people watching, in addition to the tourists there are obnoxious touts trying to deal audience tickets to different shows and all sorts of people dressed up in embarrassingly poor Spider Man and Darth Vader outfits who kindly offer to stand next to you in a picture for a fee. Luckily for those who find the costumes dumb there is also the Naked Cowboy, an unlikely celebrity who has even made his way to The Simpsons. And the options don't stop there, for those who dislike the look of an aging though muscular male body, there are also plenty of young women walking around in similar outfits, with only paint covering their bare breasts.
Let me stop right there for a moment. Walking on Times Square we passed about half a dozen of these women who wear nothing but cowboy boots, panties and some feathers on their heads. They have some patriotic red and blue paint on their torsos but none the less their boobs are clearly visible. I of course saw no problem in this, only a stark controversy. Back in our hostel I watched Harold & Kumar on cable and had to suffer through the bleeping of the F-word and the hole part in assh**e. In Adam Sandler's The Longest Yard they had replaced the innocently funny post-tackle "I think I made him sh*t himself" with "I think I broke his freaking neck". Americans would rather break a person's neck than mouth a profanity. Best of all there was a TV program called Dating Naked where the network had blurred out the only interesting bits of the show. Even in Las Vegas, or "the Sin City", the busty women posing for pictures had managed to put tops on. Here women were standing topless in front of Toys "R" Us. There might be a double standard there somewhere…
Back to the point. We made our way past these distractions to a couple of stores, mainly the five-floor Toys "R" Us and the Disney store to buy some souvenirs. Then we took a bunch of pictures, some of which may or may not have included the topless women without paying them. There are times when an 18x optic zoom in a pocket camera is handy… With that done we started heading back towards our hostel, walking up Broadway towards Central Park. Just to give you an idea of what a "walking distance" can be, we walked from our hostel on the 135th Street to the end of Times Square on the 42nd Street and back on the same day. That's 186 blocks, most of which was in the Central Park, but still. Apparently you can navigate Manhattan on foot if you really want to.
The Statue of Liberty
There is a limit to how far we are willing to walk to and the "Lady Liberty" was clearly beyond that point. That is why we purchased a ten trip pass for the subway, costing us $26. A single ride when bought separately costs $3, so we saved some money by buying the MetroCard for $1 and putting $25 on it. Confusingly a single ride with the card costs $2.75 but we still got the ten rides out of ours… Anyway, we took the subway line 1 all the way down to South Ferry station where we embarked on the free Staten Island Ferry to see the famous statue without having to pay for it. The crowded ferries transport people to and from Staten Island in about 25 minutes, leaving each port every half an hour. On the way the ferry passes close enough to the Statue of Liberty to award passengers with a great view of the symbolic piece and the Manhattan skyline.
Opposite to what many pictures and TV ads would have you believe the 151 feet (46 meters) tall statue is far away from everything so to get a good look at it you really have to jump on one boat or another. The adult rate for the ferry to the statue costs only $18, which is pretty reasonable considering how famous of a landmark we're talking about. Better still, going up to the crown of the statue costs only $3 extra, but the climb is strenuous since there is no elevator. We would gladly have paid the fare for the whole thing, but based on what we read the place is ridiculously crowded and you have to pass through airport-type security screening to be allowed to enter. It sounded like too much of a hassle, especially since we could get pretty close with the free Staten Island Ferry.
The large waiting room for our ferry was completely packed when we were waiting to be let in, but luckily we weren't too far from the entrance doors. When they finally opened we did what everyone else was doing and started to rush and to push ourselves in as if our lives depended on it. We found that not only is it important to be somewhere around the front of the mass to get a good spot on the ferry, you also need to use some common sense. What we did was that we separated ourselves from the mass as quickly as possible, to allow us some room to maneuver. The ferries don't turn on the way so the Statue of Liberty can be viewed from the right side of the ferry when starting from Manhattan and from the left side when starting from Staten Island. As soon as we got into the ferry we made our way to where ever it was least crowded, usually meaning the lower deck opposite to the goal. Most people jam themselves on the first available stairs but what we did was to go straight to the back of the ferry and climb the two sets of stairs there to reach the third floor. Only then did we go to the side we were aiming for, both times finding it almost empty. As the ferry was starting to fill up people would gather behind us but no-one tried to pry us away from the railing so we got to enjoy the view we had hoped for. Starting from Manhattan we first got great views of the skyline and later started to close in on the main event. We passed the Statue of Liberty from such a close range that had the light been coming from a different angle I would have gotten some spectacular pictures. The ones I got were OK, but if one is a serious photographer they might want to do this in the morning when the east facing statue is lit up from behind the ferry.
The Statue of Liberty is once again one of those things you assume is bigger than it actually is. At least I did. The tip of the torch reaches the height of 305 feet (93 meters), but only because the statue stands on a 154-foot (47 meters) high pedestal. The effect might be different from closer by, this being the tallest statue of modern times. It was great to see it none the less, even though it was a little shorter than the tallest redwood trees we saw in northern California, pedestal and all. Those were some big trees, one really should put one of those next to Lady Liberty to allow the comparison the forest lacked.
We didn't linger long in Staten Island after arriving there. One can't just take the same ferry back, but has to disembark and get back in through the terminal. We did that but missed the first ferry and had to wait half an hour for the next one. It wasn't too bad though, at least we got almost within touching range of the doors to wait for another plunge towards the upper deck. Our plan worked once again and we got a pretty good spot on the third floor of the ferry, allowing us views of the statue once more before continuing on.
Another great New York landmark, the Brooklyn Bridge, lies within a walking distance from the Staten Island Ferry. And no, I don't mean 186 blocks away. After returning to Manhattan we followed the shoreline east, passing the famous Wall Street along the way. Better yet, we also passed a place where they had a shuttle boat to Brooklyn's Ikea! This being a weekend the round trip would have been free with an Ikea purchase, but we figured we didn't really want to carry any furniture home with us as souvenir and kept on walking. The views to the Brooklyn Bridge were somewhat obscured by small and sad looking piers and construction sites, but once we reached the grand structure we finally got an unobstructed look at it. To view it from another angle we followed it inlands for a while until we found a pedestrian access point and climbed on it.
I had no idea that the walkway on Brooklyn Bridge goes in the center of the bridge instead of on the side of it. This curious aspect made it nearly impossible to get good pictures of the city but it did offer some interesting angles of the bridge itself. The same pathway is used by pedestrians and bicyclists, to the annoyance of both, so one should be careful when crossing its length. We did just that, walking all the way to the Brooklyn side and catching the C line at High Street subway station. We ended up having to walk a little further than we had originally thought since the C line doesn't stop at all stations during weekends. This meant that we had to get off at 125th Street instead of 135th, forcing us to walk ten blocks extra. Then again, "walking distance" is a stretchy term.
The next day we used our MetroCard again to take the subway to 34th Street. We stopped at Macy's, the world's largest store, on the way to the Empire State Building where I realized that I don't know a whole lot about architecture. However, I believe I'm not alone in this: if one was to put the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Woolworth Building and the Trump Building in a police lineup, I bet a whole bunch of people would not be able to figure out which is which, even the two first ones. I had assumed that the one with the arches on the top was the Empire State Building, but that is the Chrysler one. Empire State is kind of flat and boring, even with the massive antennae on the top. We skipped the views from up there since it would have cost quite a bit, $29 for the first viewpoint and additional $17 for the 102nd floor observatory. Instead we had lunch at Wendy's, bought some coffee from Starbucks and a souvenir from a toy store in the shadow of the monolith. That was enough for us.
We followed the famous 5th Avenue north to New York Public Library, once again without bothering to enter but appreciating its appearance from the outside. Turning on 42nd Street we then came to Grand Central Terminal and went in to take a couple of courtesy pictures of the famous railroad station. Many movies have used it as a filming location, but other than that we didn't really have any interest in it and just kept going. We were headed to a much more important place, the American Girl store on the corner of 5th Avenue and 49th Street. We had been asked to purchase a doll called Grace and to bring her home with us, possibly accompanied by matching outfits for the doll and the girl it was going to.
I have to say that the American Girl was without a doubt the most over-the-top-ridiculous store I have ever been to. Everything was pink. Everything was hugely expensive, especially Grace with a price tag of $120 before taxes or a new hairdo. They had a bunch of people serving as hairdressers for the dolls. They would put on braids and extensions, they would pierce the doll's ears, they would even equip her with a hearing aid if asked! The dolls were sitting in miniature salon chairs with capes around their shoulders, getting pampered with things like face masks and cucumber stickers on their eyes.
We got out of there as soon as we could. We didn't even get the matching outfit because the girl size T-shirt was $38 and the skirt $44. In my opinion there is only so much love any toy is entitled to have… We continued our shopping tour by returning to Times Square via Rockefeller Center and ending up in the Disney store once again. Leaving that we were carrying toys from three different sources in very obvious toy store packages. It was time to return home and stay there to avoid further mischief…
New York City is filled with different types of cultural experiences, the only problem is how to choose between them. Our hostel was within an easy walking distance from the Apollo Theater "where stars are born and legends are made" but we decided not to go see their Wednesdays' amateur night. Instead we chose two prominent museums to educate ourselves with. We considered both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History to be within a walking distance from our Harlem hostel even though they were around 80th Street on different sides of the Central Park. We saw the two museums on different days and enjoyed the walk in the park both times.
The Metropolitan Museum, or the Met, is an art museum and as such one should assume it pretty boring. In the end it was surprisingly interesting though, and we both ended up enjoying it, so much so that we spent about three and a half hours there before succumbing to hunger and relocating ourselves to the nearest Subway restaurant. The Met sits on the eastern edge of Central Park where it spreads out from 84th Street all the way to 80th Street. In that four block distance they have managed to obtain important and historic art pieces from around the world and from ages long passed. I highly doubt if anyone could take it all in properly in a single day so we didn't even try. We only saw the exhibits that sounded interesting to us and skipped everything else without a second thought. We figured that there's no point in seeing things once you've stopped caring, which eventually happens in every museum.
Surprisingly the Met doesn't have a set entrance fee, but lets you choose how much you're willing to pay. The recommended admission price for adults is $25 and $12 for students. We were willing to pay the student price but since the lady selling the tickets made it pretty clear that we didn't have to we paid just $10 per person. It was confusing. After sticking the admission stickers on our shirts we started with our first exhibit, Egyptian Art. We had planned to rush through this one but ended up spending quite a bit of time there. They had sarcophaguses with mummies inside of them and everything else you would expect to find in a history museum, not in an art one. My personal favorite were some miniature sculptures which I first thought were just a representation of life in ancient Egypt. After reading the text on the wall I discovered that that was exactly what they were, only they were 4000 years old. The figures had been found in incredibly good shape from a hidden chamber in an already excavated tomb. It was very cool but also reminded me of the fine line between archeology and grave robbing…
We moved on into the American Wing which we walked through fairly quickly to go see the Arms and Armor exhibit. I devoured the Game of Thrones book series on this trip and was excited to see all of the different types of weapons and armor described in the novels. One of the full body armors was clearly worn by Ser Gregor Clegane of the 1500s since it was almost as tall as I am. After that we walked through a couple of sections of European Sculpture and Decorative Art to get to a special Vincent Van Gogh exhibition called Irises and Roses, portraying his paintings of irises and roses. With that done we closed our eyes again and fumbled our way through some more European Sculptures and Stuff to get to Modern and Contemporary Art. There we saw a couple of Picassos and a far more important thing, an Aalto vase. It was great to see a glass vase found in almost all Finnish homes to be placed amongst some of the most important pieces of the 20th century. We have LED lights we bought from Ikea in ours…
By then we were starting to get a little hungry but we managed to get to the second floor through Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Upstairs we continued this condensed RTW trip with Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia. Some jokester had picked up all those big carpets and nailed them on the walls… We were starting to be pretty tired too so we made up our minds to go see just one more thing, the Musical Instruments exhibit, but to get there we had to go through Ancient Near Eastern Art, Asian Art and a little of the second floor American Wing. We enjoyed the instruments, even though they were missing a very important one, the Finnish kantele. We managed to forgive them that eventually.
With that we were done with the Met. There would have been a lot more to see but we had gotten our fill and thus any further exhibits wouldn't have managed to excite us anymore. It's important to leave before you start yawning, to avoid ending with the impression that the place was actually boring. We followed this same principle the next day also, when we visited the American Museum of Natural History. Unlike in the Night at the Museum movies the place is actually very big, if not quite as big as the Met. Located just west of Central Park between 80th and 77th Streets the AMNH has a similar confusing admission fee system as the Met, suggesting $22 for adults and $17 for students. We paid the full student fare, for no particular reason. Interestingly they also had separate prices for their special exhibits, meaning that for $27 an adult would also get admission to one special exhibit and for $35 they would all be available. But what if I had wanted to pay just $15 for the entrance? Would one special exhibit have cost me $5 more? I guess I'll never know.
We started our tour from the first floor in the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth. Showcasing different kinds of rocks and informational signs about geology this was a particularly boring exhibit. We liked the next one, the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, a lot better. Not only had they shot and stuffed a lot of impressive animals, they had also gone through the trouble of placing them in lifelike poses with paintings of beautiful views behind them. We were glad to see that our road trip in the American west had not been for nothing, many of the views were familiar to us. We had seen a few of the animals also, like the bison, the moose and the grizzly in Yellowstone National Park. Next we continued to the Hall of Biodiversity where we saw a bunch of other animals we had seen on this trip, like the manta ray hanging from the ceiling. In the next room, Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, they had hung a life size model of a blue whale, the likes of which we had sadly not seen. Downstairs they did have a few elephant seals, the grotesque sea creatures we saw in California. Whether they had Californian redwoods in North American Forests I can't say, at least we didn't spot any. Moving on we liked the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins showcasing bones and such of early humans and their relatives, but didn't get all that excited about Ross Hall of Meteorites or Guggenheim Hall of Minerals. We just don't like rocks, except for the ones that are worth a lot of money like the ones in Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems.
Climbing up to the second floor we once again realized that we were getting hungry, but having paid so much for the museum we weren't willing to call it quits. Instead we decided to limit our interest to animals, skipping all remaining exhibits of different cultures. We saw the Birds of the World and continued to Asian Mammals before heading to the much more interesting Akeley Hall of African Mammals. In my opinion the best part about the museum was how they set the animals in their poses and recreate their environments. All were done extremely well which made the experience resemble more a safari than a tour of dusty stuffed skins.
Sadly before we could manage to go see the third and fourth floors we had to do the unthinkable and have lunch in the lower level food court. Two slices of the cheapest pizza put us back $9.36 but we made it through the rest of the museum with those. Sadly the exhibits in the third floor weren't quite as visual as the previous ones with more of a museum like feel to them. The New York State Mammals and Birds was especially boring, showing the empty skins of flayed animals nailed to the wall like hunting trophies. Even the primates were boring, just monkeys behind a glass, missing the all-important fake backgrounds. Luckily the fourth floor was better, with Milstein Hall of Advanced Mammals showing the largest and most spectacular mammals walking the face of the earth and Primitive Mammals housing the bones of extinct goliaths like the lestodon, a giant prehistoric sloth. None of these was even remotely as large as the next specimens however, in the Ornithischian Dinosaurs. There were plenty of fossilized bones of dinosaurs with very difficult-to-spell names. They were great. Even greater were the massive skeletons in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, which was the last exhibit we saw. We left the museum just before closing time after having spent more than four hours in it. It was a lot of work, but we did emerge more educated. And tired, so very tired…
Moving on: the Airports
To get my story flowing I skipped the "getting from the airport to the hostel" but since I've already reached page seven on this Word document I might as well go over it anyway. We took a cab. There's a set price of $52 for Harlem when starting from JFK airport and in addition to that we paid about $7 worth of road tolls and a tip for the driver which brought the total amount to $65. It was expensive, but very handy. To save some money on the way out we did things the hard way, which may or may not have been wise. Our flight was departing at 8.45 p.m. from Newark airport in New Jersey, reachable by train from Manhattan's Penn Station. Thus we started from our hostel at 4.45 p.m., carrying five bags. We were flying with Iceland Air which allows two checked luggage per person, which is not solely a good thing. Due to our generous nature we had acquired quite a bit of souvenirs…
With those in hand we made it through the subway ride marvelously and arrived to Penn Station in almost no time at all. Then we made our way towards the surface where the New Jersey trains were departing from and found about half of the population of New York City in the same hall with us. Luckily the line to the ticket counter was a short one so we didn't have to wait too long to purchase the tickets to the airport for $12.50 per person. The reason the hall was so crowded seemed to be that unlike back home the passengers are not told which platform their train is going to arrive to until the very last minute. Fortunately as we were buying the tickets our train's platform number appeared so we could ask the cashier for the shortest route. Rushing in that direction we made our way down to the train that was standing still with its doors closed. Once they opened we joined the masses pushing their way in. This would be bad on any day and we had the five pieces of luggage to make it worse. We were able to stuff our main backpacks in the space between two rows of seats facing opposite directions and hurdled our smaller items to the overhead shelves, and in the end were able to sit down comfortably.
After the train departed it took about thirty minutes to get to the Newark Airport station where we disembarked relatively easily even with all the things we were carrying. What was not quite as easy was traveling with the AirTrain, a sad collection of small booths connected end to end to make a train. Each compartment was only about ten feet long which meant that you couldn't really fit too many people inside. People still did, crowding into the train until it was ready to burst. It was terribly uncomfortable but luckily the trip didn't last very long. In the end we made it to the airport check-in in about one hour and fifty minutes which wasn't too bad. And we only paid $25 (not including the subway) instead of the $70 to $80 the reception of our hostel said a taxi would have cost.
Holy smoke this has got to be my longest post yet. Oh well… I'm going to keep on writing just to say that we were glad to find that New York City really isn't as expensive as we imagined. I keep track of our expenses with an Excel that borderlines obsessive compulsive disorder and according to that we only paid 53.07€ ($58.20) per person per day during our stay. We stayed in a cheaper hostel and didn't spend too much on food, eating our breakfasts in the room and having our dinners in fast food places. In my opinion we got to see quite a few places but except for the museums we didn't pay for any of them. We did spend quite a bit on souvenirs, which I haven't included in the costs since that is money we didn't spend on ourselves. All this goes to say that New York City turned out to be a surprisingly nice place to stay a few days in with plenty of things to see and do while still being relatively affordable.