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Goodbye Reality, Hello New York!

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By Kulbhushan Kain

In many peoples’ minds, New York remains the ultimate travel destination. It’s a dream city,

though it has a dark underbelly as well, with some seedy streets which tourists avoid walking on when it gets dark. We were brought up on books about the mafia and gang wars in New York and Chicago. Though in decline, gangs are still known to engage in gambling, drug and arms trafficking, white collar crime such as counterfeiting, identity theft, and fraud, as well as non-traditional activities, such as human trafficking and prostitution.

We had made an informed decision not to walk or take the subway after it got dark. I think it’s a wise decision and any tourist would do well to keep that in mind. And yet we got scammed – right in the middle of Wall Street. Sangeeta (my wife) ordered a vanilla ice cream from an ice cream truck. The owner tapped the forex card once, shook his head, and then tapped again. He then looked at us and said, “It doesn’t work.” I took out my forex card and asked him to tap it. He gave me a thumbs up sign. It had worked!

After ten minutes, Sangeeta and I both got notifications from our banks that the amount had been debited from our accounts – Sangeeta’s twice! In effect, we had paid for 3 ice creams instead of one! Welcome to the Big Apple! There are some apples that are rotten!

But keeping aside the apprehensions which are quite natural for a non-resident, and the actual fraud by the ice cream truck owner- it has been a fabulous experience. One should not let an incident here or there cloud opinions on what is essentially a great city. One should take precautions. The subway system is fantastic – one can get to any part of the city within minutes. It’s cheap – one must buy a metro pass for 7 days. It gives you unlimited rides for 34 dollars. What in effect it means is that a person can see the length and breadth of New York for 2500 rupees over 7 days.

The food is good. The pizzas and hot dogs stare at you around every bend! Then there is Mexican, Spanish, Indian, Chinese, American food among many other options to eat.

Chinatown is the place to have Chinese food (for a middle-class Indian). The food is authentic.

I must admit that I haven’t had such good Chinese food even in India/Hong Kong/Bangkok/Cambodia. And it isn’t expensive.

The pizzas in New York are also great. We had pizzas at America’s oldest pizza outlet, Lombardi, and at the famed Grimaldi Pizza outlet in Brooklyn. They were huge and very nice – straight from wood fired ovens. We had bruschetta as well. I think the pizzas and bruschetta were better than the ones we tasted in Rome. The American national “bite” seems to be hot dog and french fries! For 7 dollars, you can get a big hot dog with all the sauces you want.

Bottom line – New York isn’t all that expensive, unless one wants to waste money by going to branded places and have 3 or four course meals!

There are things one must NOT miss in New York. Many go to shop and meet relatives in New York. Don’t fall into those traps. You can make purchases and meet relatives and friends in India. You may not come to New York often enough. To travel to it is expensive, and visas are not too easy to get these days. So, see what you can’t see anywhere else in the world. You can’t see the Statue of Liberty, or Libertas, the Roman Goddess of Liberty. She holds a torch above her head with her right hand, and broken chain and shackles lie at her feet, commemorating the national abolition of slavery following the American Civil War. It is made of hammered copper sheets. Walk down Times Square which is brightly lit by numerous digital billboards and advertisements. It is one of the world’s busiest pedestrian areas, and also the hub of the Broadway Theater District and a major center of the world’s entertainment industry. An estimated 50 million visitors visit it annually. Approximately 330,000 people pass through Times Square daily, many of them tourists, while over 460,000 pedestrians walk through it on its busiest days.

It was formerly known as Longacre Square and renamed in 1904 after “The New York Times” moved its headquarters there.

In walking distance (if you have a pair of averagely strong legs) is Grand Central Station. If you think railway stations are boring, then visit the Grand Central Station in New York. You will be stunned by its magnificence. It’s huge and over 750,000 people go through the terminals every day. It’s the largest train station in the world. It’s beautiful!

While in and around Times Square, take a walk to the Empire State Building. The building has a roof height of 1,250 feet and stands a total of 1,454 feet tall, including its antenna. The Empire State Building was the world’s tallest building until the first tower of the World Trade Center was topped out in 1970. Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, the Empire State Building was New York City’s tallest building until it was surpassed in 2012 by One World Trade Center – which again is a must see.

There are hundreds of things to see and do in New York. It’s a big city and you can just see the tip of the iceberg if you are a tourist who is on a week or month long sojourn to it.

The high line in Chelsea, jazz bars in Greenwich Village, the reservoir in Central Park, the Tenement Museum, Ground Zero, Rockefeller Center, the Museum of Natural History and/or the Met are not to be missed.

Above all, walk. You can see so many unique things in the city just by moving around with no agenda. Put your phone away and get lost for a couple of hours. Go to a neighborhood, East Village, Soho, Little Italy, Upper West Side, etc. Walk around. Go to one of the Parks – Central Park is so unique and pulsating. Watch people. Eat a regular slice of pizza, a bagel, Italian cannoli.

The real New York is on the streets, in the food, and in the places you find by wandering for the day.

But, honestly, New York City is so big and full of stuff to see that it has to be an individualized experience. One can’t say “oh, you must see this or your trip will have been for nothing”.

Your time in NYC will be precious.

It’s a beautifully busy city with something to offer everyone – Museums, Skyscrapers, Large Gardens “freaky people”, unlimited shopping! It all depends on what you like.

New York offers you freedom because it offers you choices. In it you can feel free as a bird soaring in the sky!

It emancipates you! Therein lies its beauty and greatness.

(Kulbhushan Kain is an award winning educationist with more than 4 decades of working in schools in India and abroad. He is a prolific writer who loves cricket, travelling and cooking. He can be reached at kulbhushan.kain@gmail.com)