Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It's New York, New York!

US trip diary
Day 2 continued
16 December

The British Airways flight from London to New York was uneventful. But travelling with three young kids proved to be challenging. Enhong our eldest son was well behaved, only to be reminded sometmes to take a break from constantly watching the in- flight entertainment. Enxuan our second son was also well behaved, but about 30 minutes prior to landing, he was waking up from a not so good sleep, fighting for precious seat space with his younger brother. He was crying, in tears, not wanting to be comforted. Our youngest Encheng was the most handful. When not sleeping, he was in good spirit, breaking up the in-flight headphone, tearing up the in-flight magazine, getting up and down the seat, picking up blankets and pillows from the floor, and playfully biting his family members. He was energetic and restless, occasionally I had to walk him around the cabin. The in-flight food was good. However, both Su-lan and I felt nauseous when the airplane was preparing for landing in new York. That feeling was not pleasant, we felt like throwing up.

Entering the US for foreign nationals requires completed a arrival and departure form for each traveller, as well as a customs declaration form for the family. I duly completed the forms at the start of my flight.

When landing in JFK, we found New York to be overcast and cold. Not cold by New Yorkers' standard, but cold by South African standard. Unlike other international airports. There were no airport personnel welcoming you at the terminal gate. We however did receive preferential treatment at customs as we were Travelling with a toddler. The baggage claim was a quick process. The airport charges 5 dollars for use per trolley, which was not nice. So like many other travelers, we pulled our own luggages.

A friend of mine in South Africa asks us to buy a pair of Ray Ban for him at the airport, so it was our first task in New York, besides getting A data sim for iPad. But at the arrivals hall there were only a couple of convenience shops; fancy, glamorous shops were nowhere to be seen. Realizing it was not the place to meet my friend's request, we proceeded to getting transport to our hotel in New York.

I did a lot of internet research prior to the trip, checking out various types of accommodation and mode of transport. The JFK airport offers the train, shuttle and taxi services. I found the taxi service to be very efficient and responsive. Out of the arrivals hall, I immediately spotted a number of yellow cabs. One of them caught my attention. It was a Ford mini-van, larger and taller than a normal sedan, perfect for transporting my family, a group of five with luggage. I went up to speaker to the driver, confirmed the fare to be 52 dollars as per my research on the web. My family then joined the queue for the taxis. When the mini-van taxi pulled up to the front of the queue, the 10 or so travelers in front of us in the queue were understanding and allowed our family to jump the queue to get the mini-van taxi.

Our taxi driver's name is Able. What a coincidence to meet a fellow African! He is Ghanaian, having emigrated to the US 12 years ago, now a US citizen, happily living and working in New York. He was a good communicator, acting as our tour guide, pointing out the various suburbs and landmarks along the way, the most interesting fact of which was the stadium for the baseball team Mets and the venue for the US Open tennis tournament. He is an aggressive driver, clearly understanding that time is money for his business, and he was wasting no time in getting us to our hotel Edison in Midtown Manhattan speedily. I admired his ability to drive closely behind vehicles on the highway. It did make me nervous, something I considered unsafe and reckless in South Africa. Anyway, we arrived at the hotel 12:00, more than two hours earlier than my plan.

Hotel Edison is excellently located in the famous Times Square vicinity. I found it in the popular travel websites Kayak and Expedia, thanks to my brother Peter now living in Houston and my long-time friend Liangyu Lin living in New Jersey. It is reasonably priced for a hotel near Times Square, has two queen beds in the room, sufficient for our young family. I was concerned about comments made by some reviewers about the noises from ongoing renovations and from the streets, but they put us in a room on the 3rd floor, in a quiet corner. So the room was quiet, only occasional police vehicles sirens pierced through the quiet.

The hotel room does not have coffee making facilities, which we consider an essential for a hotel in South Africa. Also it does not include complimentary breakfast, no free wi-fi either.

Spending some time in the hotel freshening up, we were out and about exploring Times Square. It was drizzling, cold and wet. We went into the familiar McDonald's in Times Square to have some snacks and free wi-fi. The interior walls are exquisitely decorated with paintings of New York landscapes, with a large model of buildings on the first floor.

One thing we have noticed is how warm it is indoor, whether in shops, hotels or restaurants, no matter what the outside temperature is. It must consume a lot of electricity to provide such heating. Also the temperature difference between indoor and outdoor takes a bit of adjusting to. Outdoor you put on a warm jacket, indoor it is so warm you have to take off your jacket, or you will find yourself sweating.

One comment made by our taxi driver is true, that New York never stops working as too many people depend on it. It is amazing how quickly New York recovers from the damages sustained during Superstorm Sandy. The tunnels are working, subway is working, electricity supply is very good, there is little sign of the effect of superstorm Sandy.

It is interesting how McDonalds offers some additional items for its US market that are not available in South Africa, like a rib burger. But the Big Mac is always there on the menu.

After McDonald's, Su-lan felt like an American hot dog, as we are in America. There is a hot dog stand right on the Times Square, with sign on it advertising as NYC's best hot dog. Attracted by the sign, we went up to buy a chili dog with cheese. It was pricey at USD 5.75. As a tourist you pay up. The hot dog was good, spicy, but I mean a hot dog is a hot dog ...

Then I let Su-lan do some shopping in AE (American Eagles Outfitters clothing store), while I took upon myself to take the three kids with me, walking around some blocks near the hotel. There are lots of shops, restaurants and theatres in Times Square, one can get great entertainment or retail therapy. The district reminds me of the Xinyi District in eastern Taipei, also full of shopping and things to do.

Getting back to the hotel just after 4:30, my primary school friend Liangyou Lin also arrived as agreed. Liangyou is known as Leon, we had gone to the same primary school and junior high school in Taiwan, namely Zaixing再興in Taipei. We lived in nearby suburbs, and we have been friends since childhood. The last time I saw him was in my university years. After junior high school I emigrated with my family to South Africa in 1989. After military service he went on to do postgraduate studies in New York, since has lived and worked in the US. He now lives in New Jersey, working for a telecommunications company. Prior to this trip I have been communicating with him via email and Skype, he has been great help, offering me travel tips, where to book for lowest rates, and arranging for great calling plans for Su-lan and my cell phones, so we can keep in touch while in US. He even did some shopping for us prior to our arrival. I really appreciate his kind assistance, for making us feeling welcome in our first stop in the US. There is nothing like having a friend when you travel to a foreign country. I have been looking forward to seeing him and his family.

Both of us have aged a little. He looks in good shape, has not changed much from school days. I was introduced to his wife and son Grant, who were already in our room, his wife chatting to Su-lan. We exchanged gifts, discussed about the plan for the evening. As kids would love to visit the huge Lego store at Rockefeller Center, and the Lego store would close at 7pm on a Sunday, we decided to first visit the Lego store.

In New York, a lot of people get around by walking. There are a lot of people everywhere, and a lot of people walking. Many of them are local residents, many are Americans from other parts of the US visiting NY as tourists, and also many foreign tourists. We have been warned of pocket pickers, but we felt pretty safe in New York. There is high level of police presence. Just about every street corner is one or two policemen.

We walked from our hotel on the 47th Street to the Rockefeller plaza on the 50th Street. There is simplicity in their street names, I think it's great for first-time visitors navigating the city. On our way we saw familiar American brand names such as Chase, Christies and publisher McGraw-Hill.

Rockefeller Plaza is a huge attraction for locals and tourists. It boasts of a giant beautifully lit Christmas tree, an ice rink, and some speciality stores. It was jam packed with people on this Sunday evening, with festive buzz in the air. I note a lot of Chinese faces in the crowd.

After struggling trough the crowd, we were eventually admitted to the Lego store. It is full of ... yes you have guessed it, Legos! of all colour, sizes and shapes. It's like a big playground for kids. My wife bought a Lego star trek keyring with LED light for my second son Enxuan. He is unique in that he has this fascination with keyrings, he likes collecting keyrings and playing with them.

By this time the great amount of air travel we took the previous day started to affect the kids, who have been excited with the trip. Liangyu gave me directions to Wu Liang Ye, an authentic Chinese restaurant he has booked for dinner. His family would catch up with us later. This restaurant is on the 48th Street, just a couple of blocks from Rockefeller plaza. But bewildered by the crowd, walking in the light rain, feeling exhausted and being first-time visitor to this big city, I was disoriented. Pushing Encheng in the stroller, I just wanted to get to the destination as soon as possible, to be in a place of rest. I ignored my son Enhong's indication from Maps on my iPhone that we were heading in the wrong direction, and what could be a three-minute walk turned out to be a 20-minute detour. It felt like a long walk. I should have remained in the company of Liangyu and walked together to the restaurant.

By the time we got to the restaurant, we were wet, tired, exhausted. Liangyu's wife already ordered chow-fan for the table. Some lovely dishes were ordered and quickly served to our table. The food was great, but the kids in their tired state were not in mood to enjoy the food. After having some food, Enhong was the first one gone, with us face burying in his arms sleeping on the table. Then Enxuan followed, lying sleeping on two chairs. I would love to chat to chat more to Liangyu, but I also was not in the best frame of mind for conversations. And I had to think of how to get the sleeping kids back to the hotel.

Anyway, it was good to know that Liangyu and his wife are doing well in their respective jobs, and they are happy living in the US.

After the dinner, the great mission of returning to the hotel began. We had to wake up the two sleeping kids, who were not happy at all. Liangyu and his family walked us to the hotel in the light rain. My job was to get Enhong walk back to the hotel. He is 40 kg in weight, and I would not be able to just put him on my back and walk. He was tired, sleepy and unhappy, tears coming down his cheeks. I had to assist him walking forward, putting my arms around him, comforting him. He slipped once.

I was so glad and relieved when we got back to our hotel room. After escorting Liangyu to hotel lobby, saying thank-you and goodbye to Liangyu, I returned to our hotel room, lying in bed, exhausted, not having any energy left. I did sleep relatively well, only to wake up at 1am in the morning due to jet lag.

I guess this is how it would be, when you visit a big country and a big city for the first time, you would want to pack as much as possible into each day, making the best of the trip.

No comments: