Category: Travelling

Thanksgiving 2014

Today is Thanksgiving in the US. It's a holiday with dubious origins but still celebrated by enough people in New York that a lot of shops are closed and people who work in offices usually take at least two days off work.

My friends Chris and Cathy invited me to their house for Thanksgiving meal. This is the fourth time I've spent the holiday in New York and the second time I've been over to their house to celebrate. Chris makes a turducken, amazing mac & cheese, sweet potato that he infuses with LSD or something (coconut milk and Sriracha) to make it taste extraordinary, a dirty rice and, this year, potatoes cooked in goose fat. We drink wine and tell stories and plead with the children to play nicely.

I like the idea of the holiday. Taking a moment to think about what is good in one's life might help put the complaints that hound us daily aside for a while.

I caught a taxi to their house in Brooklyn. Sometimes I enjoy talking to taxi drivers and I'll usually let them make the first mood. I hate when people talk to me when I'm working but I'll give them a couple of hints that I'm friendly to let them know the opportunity for a chat is there.

My guy today was originally from Rwanda. He's been in New York for five years and he loves it here. He said that as long as someone isn't lazy they can make a living here. He told me this story.

In Rwanda someone might make three dollars a day. Nobody owns a car unless they are super wealthy or in politics. The two often coincide. Most transport is by foot. A few people are lucky enough to have a bicycle. When he arrived in the USA he had never driven a car before.

He worked as a cleaner for a while and then got a job as a bicycle delivery guy. That's how he learnt all the streets. He couldn't believe his fortune when he was earning $200 a week.

He shares a place in the Bronx with several other people. So many of them share the house that he only has to pay about $150 per month in rent. They eat together and look at the most economical way to do so. Large sacks of rice and whole chickens bought in "three-fer" specials keep them sustained for a long time. They waste nothing. Everything is used.

When Rwanda was in civil war, he applied for refugee status. This, he told me, with no emotion. It was a matter of fact that Rwanda was a bad place and a terrible place for the poor, which included him.

The emotion came when he started telling me about the refugee camp in Nairobi where he spent 18 months. The conditions were appalling. He said something about going to the toilet and getting then people getting sick and dying. I chose to connect my own dots rather than ask details. The dots weren't pretty.

In the refugee camp he was forced to wear the same clothes every day. The only time he was provided a change of clothes was when a UN official was due to arrive. Someone taught the refugees songs with synchronised clapping to entertain the UN officials and the camp was cleaned up.

Clean clothes, clean camp and singing refugees: The UN officials never saw the true nature of the camp.

My taxi driver thinks very little of the UN. He yelled and flicked his hand towards the passenger-side window, telling me that Kofi Annan is not a great man and that the Africans who go to the UN do so with little concern for their home but great concern for the guaranteed several years of money and entitlements.

After 18 months he arrived in the USA and was, along with fellow refugees, put into a hotel in Connecticut. There, in the hotel room, were food and beverages for them to enjoy at their will. They didn't touch them until one of the people in charge asked if they were sick and maybe that's why they weren't eating.

The assumption was the food wasn't for them. Even when told they could eat what they wanted, they disbelieved. When it was made absolutely clear that there would be no retribution for eating the food, joy came into their lives. He said the word "meat" with such delight that it made me slightly embarrassed for how much I take for granted.

When he was working in bicycle delivery, a friend told him that driving a taxi was a much better job. They taught him to drive. He said he couldn't believe how easy it was. "This was the gas and this was the brake, and you go."

Through that series of events I arrived at Chris and Cathy's house, aware that it's important to remember how I got to wherever I am, to make me thankful for what is available to me now.

Faraway, so close

So here's a thing I love about the 21st century. I can lie in bed in New York, see a TV recommendation from a friend, and set my PVR at home in Melbourne to record it so I can watch it when I get home. I did all this without leaving the bed.

This is the future, my friends. We have achieved both convenience at an unprecedented level and laziness at unprecedented distances.

Cynicism aside, I choose now.

Last weekend I was also able to appear on a screen at a friend's wedding while being thousands of kilometers away. It was emotional and satisfying.

It's easy to take technology for granted but when it helps us overcome the tyrannies of distance, it still feels miraculous to me.

Niagara Falls really is a one day town

Ever since I spent time in Olympia, Greece, I've made sure to never spend more than one night in a one day town. The very basic rule is, if the place you're travelling to only has one main attraction, then there is no reason to spend more than one day there.

Olympia is famous for being the birthplace of the Olympics, that's all. Stuck in Olympia for 2 nights I managed to exhaust everything there was to do in the town. I perused both souvenir shops. I discovered the ordinary cuisine in all three restaurants. I saw the hours of nothing that happened in the main street and the tee-intersection.

So when the opportunity to go to Niagara Falls came around I made sure that we spent no more than one night there. In that 24 hour period I had to see the place where Superman 2 was filmed, I had to play some poker at the casino, and I had to eat breakfast at an 80 foot buffet that overlooked the falls.

All of this because, I knew before even getting there, that the falls were the falls and they would be magnificent, but how long can you stare at water falling?

It turns out, a long time.

Niagara, on the Canadian side, is more theme park than town - about a hundred hotels, two casinos, three ghost-trains, two wax museums, a Guiness Book of Records museum and a Ripley's Believe it or Not museum, a Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood.

There are very few places to escape music piped through from somewhere. As we walked from the main tourist street past a Starbucks playing Beatles songs towards the Hard Rock playing Led Zepplin, there is a moment where the two compete for your attention and if you stand very still your ears will melt from confusion.

Even the parks have music piped into them. Really. Escaping the music we finally discovered what it was covering up. The sound of the falls is remarkable. Megalitres of water dropping onto rocks and ice hundreds of metres below makes quite a noise. This noise just doesn't stop because, of course, the falls don't stop.

They don't. That's the most amazing thing about the falls. They just don't stop. They keep going and going and going and it's difficult to fathom (water pun) where it keeps coming from.

Maybe because I come from drought country, seeing that much water pouring out of anywhere just makes me think "Wasters, you terrible Wasters!" At home I'm showering with buckets and here they just pour their water off cliffs for the amusement of some tourists.

But it's entirely natural and it's massive and it really is amazing to watch.

The only really touristy thing we did while there was the "Behind the Falls" tour, which isn't a tour as much as it is a corridor with a fork in it. The prongs of the fork head down to these two viewing platforms where we got to see the Rainbow Falls (they're the big ones in Superman 2) from a ground view. One prong led to a beautiful view of the falls and the other is full of the ice that forms behind the falls during winter and then takes months to melt.

Just as our time to leave approached we were sick of everything in Niagara Falls and longed for the comfort of New York City. So we made our way to Buffalo airport to fly to Chicago because that's what our tickets said.

I lost $50 (Canadian) at the poker table.

New York City: A summary

Leaving New York City is always a sad affair. This time felt more like home than any time in the past. There was so much to do, I probably slept no more than 5 hours per night on average.

Before leaving for NYC people asked me "What are you going to do there?" to which my answer was always "Just hang out". It's my favourite thing to do in a city. I'll sit and have a coffee or beer somewhere, talk to some of the locals, share some stories and then move along. But I'll also try to immerse myself in as much of the city life as possible.

This time I was staying at the Hotel Chelsea which is just as famous for the people who died there as those who didn't. Our room was really big, lots of space, private bathroom, and a window overlooking busy 23rd street.

It was the perfect location. Chelsea, itself, is a hub of blind people, bad drag queens and has-been tough guys. Such an interesting location is rare and the hotel was a mix of tourists and residents who all felt at home.

A couple of plays (or "people movies", as I prefer to call them), still in previews, made for excellent live entertainment. Seeing James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels in God of Carnage gave some great laughs and it was an absolute pleasure to see Daniels work his magic on stage: a sincerely under-rated actor.

The great surprise, though, was the latest Neil Labute play, Reasons to be Pretty. Four people in the cast and all of them superb. If the Tonys are anything like the Oscars, everyone in this cast will be overlooked for nominations because they pulled off too realistic a performance for anyone with a voting form to notice.

Sprinkled elsewhere in the stay were a successful Chelsea exhibition opening, catching up with friends, a fair bit of shopping, a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, a trip to Coney Island, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, and an 11 course degustation menu prepared, overseen and expedited by Tom Colicchio.

It was a time I won't soon forget. I've always travelled alone and was concerned that travelling with someone, and someone so close to me, was going to cramp me. It was surprisingly easy and I've learnt the joy of sharing experiences. It's also valuable to learn that not all experiences can be shared. Art, for instance, is a very personal thing. I've learnt that but it still does not hurt to share.

Coming up: Niagara Falls, Chicago.

Ten hours is long enough on a flight

Travelling to New York from Melbourne is one of the longest trips on a plane. Too long. The flight from MEL to LAX is about 13 or 14 hours. Then there's the whole disembarking, customs, luggage, connecting flight malarky to put up with and then another 5 hours to JFK.

I hate airports and I hate the non-temperature they have on planes. Neither warm nor cold. I'm sure it's calculated to be the most pleasant for most people but it never feels like anything at all and that, in itself is unnatural.

Then there's the whole notion of travelling economy. There's no room to stretch out so it's almost impossible to get any sleep, even if your doctor prescribed some helping tablets.

There came a point in the first leg when I thought, "That's really long enough for a flight." I checked the handy flight path channel on the on-demand, in-seat entertainment unit and we had only just passed over Hawaii. That was about 10 hours into the flight. I wished we could stop in Honolulu for a night, get some rest and then continue on, but the pilot had other plans.

By the time we arrived at LAX I was largely zombified. Only managing three and a half hours' sleep the night before (because of the Australia vs Cuba game), Thursday had, thus far, lasted about 25 hours. There would be another 13 before it was actually time to go to bed.

Another problem with the length of travel is the anticipation of just wanting to be at the destination already. In this case it just happens to be my favourite place on earth.

New York City is where I most feel at home. I love Melbourne dearly and it really comes a very close second but there's something about NYC that makes me feel like I really belong here.

So the time it takes to get here is crucial. It takes about 20 hours total and that's just too long. That's essentially a whole day I spending not being in either Melbourne or New York. I am nowhere. Transit is limbo and it's the most uncomfortable and unnatural feeling there is.

Feeling the cold on my face when I walked out of the terminal at JFK was instantly comforting. I had returned and it felt right.
Films seen: Burn After Reading, Rachel Getting Married, Vicky Christina Barcelona