August 9, 2012 – a stranger in a strange land

(This is the second of four written on the iPad while in various stages of being in transit, and only now being published with images. This one was written on 9th August)

Transitions are good when they are finally over.

Yesterday was a transition day. We checked out of our excellent accommodation in West Seneca (Buffalo), the Staybridge Suites hotel was the best hotel of our journey by far.

We braved the morning rush on I-90 and then highway 33 to get to the fine modern airport at Buffalo. Return of the rental car was quick and uneventful. I couldn’t help noticing, in contrast to the rapacious policies of NZ airports that the first two hours oif parking were free.

Our flight back to San Francisco was a two-hop journey via Cleveland Ohio. The first leg was on a Dash 8, but that was only 50 minutes or so.  It was amusing to me, that United think the Dash 8 is too small to allow actual carry on bags. They let you check in with them and then take them off you on the ramp. They do give them back when you get off.  The journey from Buffalo to Cleveland was low enough to give a good view of the freeways and interchanges that characterise travel across this vast land. You have to wonder at the strange diversions and kinks that occur on otherwise flat terrain. Southbound freeway kinks somewhere between Buffalo and Cleveland

Our only experience of Cleveland was United’s departure lounge.

The next leg was on a B737-800. Why do people choose window seats if they want the blind shut all the way? Grrr. He opened it at my (polite) request on the final approach over the San Mateo bridge.

San Francisco was brilliantly clear, but a modest 65 deg F or so. Just a beautiful day! An early walk along the waterfront produced some interesting plant life including this cheerful specimen . yes a pohutukawa, Metrosideros excelsa in full bloom. I know there are more than 50 varieties of Metrosideros, but there is a lot of evidence for genuine pohutukawa being introduced around San Francisco.Pohutukawa in Burlingame, CA

Our hotel was at the harbour’s edge in Burlingame, close enough to the airport that we could see the markings and registration on every incoming aircraft. Of course, that means we were close enough to hear them too. But for an aerophile like me, this was magic. Emirates B777-31H

In the haze just ahead of Emirates’ beautiful B777 is Candlestick Park. The needle atop the second skyscraper from the left is the tip of the TransAmerica Pyramid. Just amazing to me, was the seemingly endless stream of aircraft arriving and departing. Four concurrently active runways makes for some interesting juxtapositions.  The long lens got a good workout. Delta B737-800 and British Airways B747-400

We needed some shopping, so set out to walk to the Safeway on El Camino Real, but found what we needed in Burlingame’s Broadway, about 40 minutes away. The return walk was along a pretty path beside the harbour with good views of both shore birds and air traffic.

And thus ended the last day of our most enjoyable trip. Today we are on our way home.

The vagaries of air travel and the international date line mean that, for us, there will be no Friday the 10th of August.

See you on Saturday.

August 5, 2012 … the restorative power of trains

I was a bit harsh on Penn Station.

Last week, I referred to its squalor when we arrived. Our departure was a bit better. I asked about an early morning taxi at the hotel. Our concierge said “they hang around hotels like flies in the morning. Get someone inside the cab and your bags on board before you tell them where you are going. They all hope for an airport ride. Don’t mention Penn Station until you are in!” A wise woman. In fact there was no problem.

We were at the station in plenty of time, though I suspect the surly Woman guarding the entrance to the Amtrak waiting room got there long before she woke up. In due course, a platform was announced, and we were able to board the train. We had indulged ourselves with business class seats on the Maple Leaf Express. Exactly on time and with no warning bells, whistles or shouts of  “all aboard”, the train began imperceptibly to glide away from the station. For a little while it plunged in and out of tunnels under Manhattan until at last it burst into open air. With it, I could feel the pressure of the city falling away.

Many places in the United States are scenically beautiful, but hereafter there will always be a special place in my memory for the Hudson River Valley. Hudson River Valley 1With none of the clickety-clack that used to go with train travel, we gathered speed and soon were racing along at a respectable 130 km/h (measured by the GPS app on my iPad). We stopped here and there, often at places whose names I knew, but had never previously visited. Bannerman's Castle on the HudsonThe journey between Manhattan and Albany was just magnificent, with a strange and wonderful mix of man-made wonders and glorious wetland.Cranes on the wetland in the Hudson

I suspect much of the things that delighted us were noxious invasive weeds adding colour to the scene.  As I observed in the Amtrak feedback web page, they would not need to spend so much on glossy brochures to attract tourists to see the wonderful landscape, if only they would clean the windows now and then. The grimy glass had a degrading effect on the images, but that’s all I have.

In the early afternoon, the train slowed markedly as it mingled with freight traffic for the same destinations.  We got there.There will be a hiatus for the next day or even two, as I shall be away from the computer.  I shall try to fill the gaps on my return.

 

August 4, 2012 … great art and whimsy

Goodbye New York City.

I am glad we came, we enjoyed what we saw, but, to be honest, we are at least a little relieved to leave.

Maybe the hot weather didn’t help, but my temperament is a mismatch with cities of this size and frenetic pace. As we glided up the Eastern shoreline of the Hudson river on our way to Buffalo today, I could feel the tension oozing from my skin.

As I said, we enjoyed our time in New York, but four days was about as much as my anxiety levels could cope with. I know there are those who thrive on this. I am not one of them.

Yesterday was “Central Park Day” for us. Despite the frustrations of our first two days, we made use of the remainder of our bus tours ticket. Our first guide almost redeemed the company in our eyes. She was an absolute delight. On the “Uptown Loop”, she knew where every important landmark was, and even managed a very credible imitation of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr President”.

The tour started from near one of the most celebrated fire crews in the world, battalion 9, with their proud slogan, “we never missed a performance” emblazoned on the windscreen of Engine 54. Engine 54 and Ladder 4 of Battallion (NYFD)

We saw some exquisite homes and churches, St John the Divine peers through the treesand of the latter my favourite was the magnificent Episcopalian church of St John the Divine.

We reflected on what it would be like to live in “the projects” of Harlem or the Bronx.  Our guide was staunchly an inhabitant of the Bronx and clearly loved living there. In Harlem we saw some nice examples of the “brownstones” that characterise the area. Harlem brownstones

We got off at the Guggenheim Museum, and though we had not planned to do so, decided to go in. Now I like many photographic abstractions, so I don’t know why the abstract art on display did not work for me. But it didn’t. The artist who really saved my day was the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright, whose stunning architectural design houses the Guggenheim’s collections. How tragic that he never saw it completed.The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York

From there, it was across the road, to an ice cream vendor at the park gate. Refreshed, we entered the park, and were immediately amazed at the healing and calming influence of being immersed in trees just a few feet from the gates. And such trees … great walnuts, elms and oaks. sylvan solace

We wandered in the general direction of the Alice in Wonderland statue. This is large bronze representation, a truly joyful representation, of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from Lewis Carroll’s famous work. I had to wait patiently until it was free of people sitting on it. Many who sat on one of the mushrooms hastily jumped off again, clutching their nether regions as the sun had heated things up to the point of pain. A magical moment in Central Park

Lunch at the kiosk by the boating pond was a delight as the (rental) model yachts ghosted about on the almost flat calm water. From there, it was back to 5th Avenue to pick up the next (and our last) tour bus of our visit to New York. We got off in Times Square, and could have transferred to the Downtown Loop, but couldn’t face another hour on the unshaded top of a bus, choosing instead to walk back to the Hotel. Even then. life was not without its moments of whimsy. Elmo weighs his chances

 

And so farewell, great city. You are magnificent, but I don’t belong here. Thanks for having us.

August 3, 2012 … a sombre interlude

Yesterday had elements of chaos and elements of tragedy.

We began by walking from our hotel to the United Nations Building, about ten minutes away. We hoped to pick up a “Hop-on-hop-off” bus on their downtown circuit. The tour guides assured us that they came every 15 minutes. We waited 65 minutes before one arrived. It was after 10 am when it came and already very hot, so patience was already thin.

It turns out that our tour guide on this trip may have been “Hilda the prison guard” in a former life. She was abrupt, peremptory, downright rude, and in my opinion had no business dealing with paying customers.

In her favour, she was better informed in her commentary than the fellow from the previous night. She really lost the plot when she harangued a man on crutches about not having all day, as he struggled up the stairs.

Like many bullies she backed down when confronted. Traffic was heavy, which would account for slow trips, but not for a 65 minute gap between buses leaving every 15 minutes. Madison Avenue in the MorningThe scenery was interesting despite her.

We were really glad to leave her bus at Battery Park.  From there we passed some interesting art works on the way to the Staten Island Ferry terminal.Quirky but I like it

As is so often the case when I travel, key landmarks are closed for renovation. In this case, the statue of Liberty is closed for several months, so rather than buy an expensive ticket to Liberty Island, we took the free ferry to Staten Island. That in itself was yet another cultural experience, not so much of Americans, but of other tourists, en-masse. “You snooze, you lose”,  was the philosophy in force, as people scrambled for a spot near the rail on the side that would be nearer the iconic statue.  In fact so many people line up on the statue side of each trip, that the ferries travel with a very pronounced list.I'm inclined to the view ...

We came close enough to the grand old lady that we could see the lines of people around the base, and we were pleased we had chosen the ferry option. Lady Liberty ... closed for renovationHaving seen and photographed her coming and going, we paused for lunch in a salad bar near Wall Street. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the meal in what seemed a bit of a “hole in the wall” place.

From there, we walked up Broadway and West at Cortlandt St to visit the World Trade Centre memorial. We had not realised that pre-authorized passes were a requirement and were lucky to receive two of the limited number of “free” passes issued at the entrance each day.

The lines were led back and forth through the belt mazes so beloved of security systems everywhere, and after about 20 minutes made it to the actual security screen which was every bit as rigorous as that at LAX. Our tickets were scanned, checked, rechecked, marked and scanned again as we got closer to the actual site of the memorial.

All the while, the new building, One World Trade Centre, also known as the Freedom Tower, is rising like a glimmering shard of glass from the emerald city. It is so highly mirrored that it almost merges with the sky behind it.Freedom Tower, NY

The memorial itself is a beautiful and moving design. Though it breaks my heart to say so, the extreme process of getting in absolutely kills the dignity and reverence that such a memorial deserves.

No other way of doing it is obvious to me. I accept that there is, and perhaps always will be, a serious threat to the buildings and to the lives and safety of the people who work on this site, and in the new buildings arising. Every precaution is absolutely necessary. It is just so inconsistent with the reflective and dignified atmosphere required. I hope and pray that one day the level of hatred will become ancient history and that people will be able to come freely to visit this special place.The World Trade Center Memorial

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Tomorrow, we “shuffle off to Buffalo”.

August 2, 2012 … it’s all a confusion

I have been up the mountain, seen the light!

Yesterday, I visited what must surely be the ultimate photography and computer store anywhere in the worldTaxis and people. Mary and I set out to walk the 1.4 miles from our hotel to the B&H Superstore at 420 9th Avenue, New York.  The distance itself is nothing, though the combination of a 35 degree day and the seething mass of humanity on the streets of Manhattan, made it seem more of a challenge than it would be in more normal circumstances. Every crossing seemed hazardous,

You can tell a first time visitor to New York … the roof or their mouth is sunburned from peering skyward with the mouth open.  We got there more or less without incident, and now my mouth had another cause to be open.  The sheer enormity of the shop was causing some mental unhinging. And then I discovered that there was more, upstairs.

To the first time visitor, especially from a country such as New Zealand where the Jewish community is small and to a large extent, externally undistinguished in clothing or habit form other citizens, B&H comes as a shock. Most of the staff are Satmar Hasidic Jews, and the men dress in accordance with the customs of that very orthodox branch of Judaism with traditional black hats and long curling sideburns.  Those who are less conservative tended to wear at least the yarmulke. Their choice of dress and religious observance diminishes not one bit, the superb product knowledge and extreme helpfulness I encountered there.

This shop could present a severe danger to my fiscal well-being, so it’s as well that we got what I went for, plus one or two other bits and then left. If I could, I would go back any time. It has to be my favourite shop on the planet.

From there we walked up 9th to W 44th St, in the heart of the theatre district. There, in the gallery of the Discovery Channel, some of the famous Terracotta army and related artefacts were on display. Before we went in, we needed revival, so went into a small shop called Times Square Bagels. Times Square BagelsI had been told by my son-in-law (and others) that I had to have a New York Bagel. I was dithering over choices when another customer offered the advice that we had made a good decision as these were the best bagels in New York.  I chose egg and cheese. I think the advice was understated. Maybe the best in the world!

In the evening, we took a bus tour with Gray line. I almost wish we hadn’t. The evening was full of promise, and despite threatened rain, the streets were absolutely crowded.The city that never sleeps

The problem was that the guide was inept, and almost every building was introduced thus:  “the building on our (left/right)  just happens to be (insert name) . This is famous for being one of the most well known buildings in the history of New York”  Everything “just happened to be” something. The one thing he really had down pat was the solicitation of tips “Anything from $100 bill to $1 will be most appreciated”.  Traffic was insane, but we completed the circuit, and even saw some nice sights. Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn

As we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, the last of the sun for the day transformed the skyline. Fountain in the forecourt of the Rockefeller Center

We walked back past the Radio City and the Rockefeller Centre on our way back to the hotel.

Two days left, and to be honest, I shall be glad to be relieved of the sensory overload (as well as the temptation to go back to B&H)

August 1, 2012 … friends in high places

Total sensory overload.

So much has been crammed into the time since the last blog, that I scarcely know where to begin.  We left Washington in the morning and enjoyed the space and comfort of a business class seat on the North Eastern Regional train.  This is a relatively “no-frills” service at a modest price with  just a tiny fraction of the hassle of air travel.

At around 1:30 the train was gliding steadily through Newark, NJ. Through the grey haze on the horizon, we could see some very tall buildings peering above the petro-chemical installations closer to hand. A down-side of rail travel is that it gives the passenger a glimpse into the backyards and industrial areas of  the country. The Hollywood version of America has a dark underside, and much of what we saw in that corridor between Philadelphia and New York had all the charm of a post-apocalyptic radioactive wasteland, And yet for many, it is home.

The next shock was the appalling squalor of Penn Central railway station, and its incomprehensible signage and dirty corridors. We eventually sought guidance from a janitor who gave us the secret directions on how to escape. On the surface, we emerged into bedlam. Every yellow cab in New York seemed to be somewhere in the vicinity of Madison Square Garden, and each was engaged in warfare with someone driving a huge Limo or a shiny black Lincoln Town Car, or a tour bus.

Our cabbie seemed to be going in approximately the right direction, taking into account the various one-way streets. He gave as good as he got, and every inch of the way, I was giving thanks I had decided I was not up to driving in New York. He was a true gladiator for the yellow team. Road gladiators We arrived at our hotel which is fine in its way except for the extortionate $14 a day they want for a woefully inadequate “broadband”.

Mary and I are walkers so the first thing we did guidance from our concierge, was to go shopping. My friend and former colleague, David Pauleen used to lament the absence of anything resembling a New York deli in Wellington. At last I understand what he was talking about. The food, the aromas, the variety, the quality of food was just astounding.  International food market in the Grand Central Building, New YorkPerhaps more on this in a future issue. We concluded the day with a night trip up the Empire State Building. Massive queues, thousands in line, but we got there, about an hour after entering the building.

I think I need to let the pictures talk for themselves.

From the 86th floor observatory of the Empire State BuildingAs always, the panoramas need to be expanded, This is a view from the observatory on the 86th floor of  the Empire State Building. The taller of the glittering towers to the South is the new “Freedom Tower” on the site of the World Trade Center. Due to open next year. Another Panorama from the ESBIf I have my orientation right this is looking to the South East, across the East River towards Brooklyn.Moonlight on the East River

The moon played its part to lend special illumination on the East River. According to signs in the tower, visibility was excellent and that horizon is 25 miles away.

Tired. Need sleep. More tomorrow.