The five hour journey from LAX to Newark flew by. I didn't have any drunken surfer dudes next to me this time, nor was I dosed up on an industrial measuring of Imodium, so the flight was an absolute breeze. Plus, I was flying to NYC! Excited wasn't the word.
Once I'd got my bags and figured out the best route to my hostel (on 103rd street, on the outskirts of Harlem), I made my way to the bus station. Me being me, I got a little bit lost when I had to change from the bus to the subway, so, looking like the quintessential tourist with a rucksack on my back and a quizzical expression on my face, I asked the nearest person for directions. I only happened to ask the guy with about three teeth didn't I? Trying to decipher the instructions through the guys saliva-spraying lisp was a challenge, but I got it in the end. We got chatting for quite a while actually. His name was Darryl and he had lived in Harlem all his life. We exchanged some sort of gangster handshake/hug hybrid and off I went to my hostel.
I was staying in Hosteling International New York, and having just stayed in its Santa Monica based hostel, my hopes were high. And rightly so. Situated just off 103rd street, the hostel is in a huge old building, looking more like an old boarding school than a place for sweaty backpackers to rest their heads. The rooms were big and again, the beds were so comfortable. Two pillows!! I met some of my room mates as well. There was Khalid from Saudi Arabia, Chris from Germany, a Japanese guy who's name I've forgotten (and couldn't pronounce the first time round anyway), and Francisco from Portugal. We were all a little peckish so we went to the nearby Mexican and gorged on their impressively sized burritos. I joked that we looked like a UN convention sat on the round table. It's quite representative of New York's demographic anyway. My Dad said this to me when he came here, and I agree with him, that New York feels like the centre of the world. Every nationality can be found in the Big Apple, and that's one of the contributing factors as to why it's my favourite city in the world.
The next day I woke up feeling like I had given a surgeon permission to make me look like Jackie Stalone in my sleep. My face was seriously tight. Smiling was nigh on impossible. I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, and my reflection confirmed what I thought it was. My lovely Fijian tan was peeling. Noooo. All of that strenuous, stressful sunbathing for nothing. I wanted to go home looking like David Dickinson, not Uncle Fester. Never mind.
That day, me, Chris, Francisco, and Brian (another addition to the dorm) decided to venture into the city for a spot of sight seeing. First up was Times Square. It's always an impressive sight, walking up the subway steps to the crowds of people, the mass sprawl of flashing billboards, and the yellow cab traffic, but I think it's at its most special when you see it for the first time. Chris and the guys were blown away, like I was when I came here two years ago.
After seeing the Rockefeller Centre and the surrounding area, we got the subway to Soho. Things were a little more flash and hip around these parts. People like me with backpacks and subway maps were replaced by hipsters wearing quirky hairdos and pants too short for them. Cafes, boutiques and art galleries filled the tree lined streets. It was cool to see. If I was a trendy New Yorker with a penchant for tight pants too small for my legs, Soho would definitely be my district of choice.
Just a short walk from here was Little Italy, or Little Eat-aly as its colloquially known. Resisting the urge to speak like someone from The Godfather was really difficult. We were all pretty peckish at this point, so where else better to sit down and grab a hefty slab of pizza? When the waiter placed the bill on the table, I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and told him in a mock Italian gangster voice that he ought to knock $20 off or I was going to feed him to the fishes. That last bit may have been in my imagination though.
After intaking enough pizza dough to make us look 9 months pregnant with pizza babies, we made our way to the financial centre that is Wall Street, and after that we decided to hop aboard the Staten Island ferry to get a better glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. With it being completely free, I recommend anyone wanting to see NYC on a budget to get the Staten Island ferry.
That night we had a BBQ at the hostel, which was world class. We're not talking about those cheap processed burgers you'd get at school in the blue and white stripey paper wrappers. These were burgers to rival the Fergburger patties in size, and you got chips, salad and a drink all for $4. Cashback! The hostel was also showing the NBA final, so we spent the rest of the night in the theatre room cheering on the San Antonio Spurs to no avail. The other team whooped their ass. I'm quite into the basketball now. I have adopted the Spurs as 'my' team. No doubt next year they'll finish rock bottom with an all time record low score. Just my luck.
The next day was another day designated to sight seeing, this time switching the main island of Manhattan for its neighbour Brooklyn. Now if I thought Soho was hipster, the district of Williamsburg made it seem as trendy and hip as Milton Keynes. Everyone here looked like ASOS models. We spent most of our time on Bedford Avenue, people watching from a cafe so cool it hurt. When my coffee was ready, the barista even shouted,
"Holllllaa Charlie man, I got'cha cappuccino for you". Nice touch.
Now, I've been buying little souvenirs from each country I've visited on my travels. For instance, in Singapore I bought an ornament, in Australia I got myself a boomerang, in New Zealand I purchased a green stone necklace (when I was very drunk), and in Fiji I splashed the cash on a Fiji Bitter vest (again, absolutely trashed). Now, in the USA I decided I'd get myself a cap from the West Coast, and a cap from the East Coast, settling on an LA Lakers one and a New York Yankees one. Chris was quite the cap aficionado, and told me of a shop in downtown Brooklyn that had the best hats in New York. I wasn't going to argue with the Cap Man.
Downtown Brooklyn was an interesting place, teeming with life. It didn't have the skyscrapers of Manhattan but it sure had the bustle. I got my cap too. It's a navy blue Yankees cap. I had to get the XL size as my head is, and always will be, abnormally large. My Mum always tells me it's because I have such a huge brain. The older I get, the more I doubt her hypothesis.
After a long stint exploring Brooklyn, me, Chris, and Francisco opted to cross the Brooklyn Bridge back to Manhattan. I did this the last time round and I remembered it being a highlight. The weather has been glorious the whole time I've been in America, possibly the nicest being in New York, and that day was no exception. That view of the skyline slowly emerging towards you, against the backdrop of the water and a clear blue sky is one of the worlds best.
Once back in Manhattan, we decided, rather than go back to the hostel straight away, we should go and hang out in Union Square instead. What a great idea that was as well. Union Square was full of buskers and people playing the guitar. I'm talking hundreds of people. There was a guy dancing on roller blades. There was a girl pushing a dog in a pram. I saw a guy with the biggest Afro I've ever seen wearing a flowery dress. Even the Hare Krishna people were having a little sing song nearby. We lost hours just people watching and singing along to the jamming going on around us.
Me, Chris, and Francisco had bought tickets through the hostel earlier on in the week for the New York Yankees baseball game that night, and for only $11. Bargain. The stadium was vast. Think more Wembley than Anfield. We were up with the Gods but none of us cared. Chris taught me the rules, and after about 15 minutes I was a baseball master. Contrasting it with a football match, if you integrated the home and away fans during a Liverpool Everton derby, there'd be nothing short of World War 3. Whereas here at the baseball match I was nestled amongst a combination of Yankees and Rays fans, of all different ages. It was the most American thing I've experienced too. The only way it would have been more American was if I was to have entered the stadium on a Harley Davidson, wearing nothing but a pair of faded denim cut off shorts and a stars and stripes bandana. There was that classic ascending organ sound nugget that plays before each round. Everyone around me was either chugging on beer or wrapping their mouths around a hot dogs or something equally as calorific. Everyone was in good spirits, and the whole thing was on the good side of cheesy. Still though, give me an edgy, testosterone fuelled, un-family friendly game of football any day of the week. The Yankees won 6-2, with one of those points being a home run. I can't think of a better way to have spent the last night of my travels.
The next day was my last. Since I had to be at JFK for around 5pm, I only had the best part of the morning to get some last minute bits and bobs. Most of this blog was written under a tree in Central Park where I had my lunch. I bleedin' love pastrami.
So, with my rucksack packed to the brim, I made my way on the subway and air train to JFK airport in time for my check in. I will miss New York, but I wasn't too sad to leave. Primarily because I was so excited at the prospect of seeing my family and friends after so long. But also because I know I will be back there one day. New York at Christmas time is next on the list I think. It still holds the mantle of being my favourite city that I've visited.
And this brings me to conclude my final blog of the 'Poor Man's Michael Palin' series. This undoubtedly has been the trip of a life time, and I will forever look back on the past four months with the upmost fondness. From the new and exciting parts of the world I have seen, to the comfort zone-leaving activities I've put myself through, to, most importantly, the amazing people I have met and shared these experiences with, everything has been better than I ever could have imagined.
I remember clearly being in the passenger seat of the family Ford Fiesta on Tuesday March 5th, whizzing along the M56 to Manchester Airport, watching the chevrons get swallowed up by the car and having that nervously excited feeling in my stomach. Like when you're queuing for a roller coaster; one part you're looking forward to the thrill, and one part is thinking,
"s***. What am I doing?!".
I remember the song that was on the radio too. Greg James played Popiholla by Chicane, a dance remix of Sigur Ros's classic, 'Hoppipolla', and listening to that song now takes me right back to that moment. Back then I had no idea of the adventure I was to go on, nor the life long friends I would make. For that reason, it will always be my travelling song, and I always get chills when listening to it.
It may sound a cliché, but in travelling around the world I have discovered more about myself than I ever have. I can grow a beard. I'm scared of mice. For all it's drizzle and clouds, I know the UK will always be home. I love, love, love to write. So much so that I'm now looking into a career in which I can use my writing skills. I've grown as a person. I think my head has grown too, after being measured for my cap (60.6cm!!!). After checking my timelime, I've learnt that I've now got Facebook friends from all over the globe now too. From Israel to China, Sweden to Portugal, USA to Fiji.
"Think of the cheap holidays", is what my Dad's inner monologue will be saying. He might have a point actually. I've also learnt that I'm not a natural born traveller. I like my home comforts. This hit me when I checked into the luxury hotel in Los Angeles. A proper traveller would have slummed it in a rickety bunk bed and battled through the virus, whereas I just couldn't have done it. I guess I was christened Charles for a reason.
Highlights of my trip include exploring Singapore and having my first taste of travelling solo, meeting Abi and the gang in Melbourne and having one of the best weeks of my travels, nearly drowning with Dave, Ailsa, Ian, and Naomi in Byron Bay, travelling up the East Coast with Alex, Celeste and Shannon, spotting Gavin on the OAP tour of Fraser Island, meeting Stacey in Gilligans and having the best month of my life in New Zealand on the Kiwi Experience with her & the gang, the skydive, the glow worm caves, flying in a helicopter over Frans Josef glacier, Queenstown, two weeks of paradise in Fiji, Santa Monica beach, and the Yankees game in New York. It has been an absolute whirlwind of fun, and I wouldn't have changed it for the world.
Now, in less than seven hours I'll be back home in Wallasey. Hopefully in that time I'll have a bacon buttie in hand, Tilly and Lola will be jumping up for the scraps, and I'll be catching up with my family. I'm sure the minute I set foot through the door it'll feel like I've never been away in the first place. Home sweet home.