Saturday, September 25, 2010

Farewell, New York (for now)

Image: New York Skyline

So what is a man to do on his last night in New York City? Of all the hundreds of potential activities I could have chosen to do, I decided to go for an evening walk to Fort Tryon Park, which is just 10 minutes from the Washington Heights apartment I have called home during my New York stay.

The park is also the location of the Cloisters, that fantastic branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see The Cloisters: Fort Tryon Park), and it is literally the highest natural feature on the island of Manhattan. Massive walls of schist, the bedrock underpinning all of Manhattan’s buildings, push high out of the lush landscaped gardens, and large areas of natural land formations that make up the park.

Wide paths wind their way high above the broad flowing waters of the Hudson River. It is the perfect place to promenade with your partner, set up a camera for a sunset shot, have a picnic, jog, walk the dog, play ball with your kids or friends, watch tugboats push barges up river, or simply relax and contemplate life in general, and life in one of the most exciting and vibrant cities in the world.

The ever present thrum of traffic rises up from the Henry Hudson Parkway, which follows the contours of Fort Tryon Park and further along, Inwood Hill Park. In the distance, the George Washington Bridge is silhouetted against the evening sky, its fourteen lanes channeling thousands of vehicles an hour between Manhattan and New Jersey.
Image: The Cloisters standing tall on Manhattan schist
My stay in New York has been a real pleasure. I could have done without the heat and humidity of July and August, but since everyone else in New York had to put up with the same conditions, there was nothing for it but to head out and make the best of a less than perfect situation.

From New York I head to Greece for an extended stay of… who knows how long. It could be a month or it could be three. I hope to use Greece as a base for forays into Europe and even into Asian Minor (do they still call it that?). I have so much still to write and document about my U.S. visit, that I don’t know when I will get time to do that. My impressions will filter out over the next weeks and months, and hopefully will still be as interesting then as they were when I was experiencing them for the first time.

A friend of my cousins in Tucson, Arizona asked during my stay, what I thought of Americans and I guess by implication, America. For the record, I can honestly say, I have not had a bad experience during my three month stay, nor during my two month visit in 2008. I have not met anyone I couldn’t get along with, and in fact, I have made several new acquaintances who I hope over time will turn into good friends.

It is almost impossible to pick a favourite moment out of all the great experiences I have had during my stay. While New York tends to overwhelm the senses, the Grand Canyon overwhelms the soul and should be on everyone’s ‘bucket list’ – you know, that list of things you’ve always wanted to do before you ‘kick the bucket’!

I have still to write about my trip to Grand Canyon, but for the record let me state that two nights and a day and a half are nowhere near enough to fully soak up this true Wonder of The World. Instead of crossing the canyon off my list of places to visit, I have left it firmly in place, since I have every intention of returning for a longer, more appreciative stay.
Image: Sunset over the Grand Canyon

Most of all though, it was the opportunity to strengthen family ties that helped make this stay extra special. I have had a chance to meet some American cousins and their children and partners (most for the first time), and those family connections have been a real joy to make. To Patris and Tom in Philadelphia; George and Jan in Raleigh, North Carolina; and to Mary and George (and George Mc) in Tucson, thank you all for your overwhelming generosity, your open arms and warm welcomes, and your delightful hospitality.

I’d especially like to thank Chris and Judy for giving me the opportunity to stay in their apartment in return for caring for their two cats and plants, collecting the mail, and providing a deterrence of sorts to potential ne’er-do-wells who could see by my presence that the apartment was being occupied and watched over.

Let’s do it again some time.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Time Travel

Note to self: When travelling by air across several time zones, never rely on your watch, cell phone, or other personal timekeeping devices to get you to your flight on time. Look for airport clocks and use them as your time keeper. That way you won’t miss your connecting flight like I did. In fact, for an entirely different reason I almost missed my rescheduled flight as well – but more of that later.

I had landed in Atlanta, Georgia en route for New York City from Tucson, Arizona. Checking my iPhone, I noted I had plenty of time before my connecting flight. Unfortunately, I had put the phone into Airplane Mode, which effectively disables it during aircraft travel. This was probably the reason the phone did not automatically adjust for the time change between Tucson and Atlanta.

So there I was, happily munching on a ham and cheese sandwich while waiting for my flight when I happened to notice an airport clock indicating the real time in Atlanta, and I immediately began to get very concerned. My plane was due to depart at 3.05PM, and the clock was showing 3.15PM! In a panic, I raced to the check-in counter, only to find Delta Airlines staff had already left and were finalizing details before my flight (which was still sitting on the tarmac at the end of the access ramp) departed for New York.

I tried unsuccessfully to get someone to help, but to no avail.

Almost fifteen minutes later – with the plane still docked to the access ramp – a staff member finally emerged from behind a security door and approached the counter. But it was too late. The flight had been secured and readied for take off, and I had officially missed my flight.

I felt like an idiot, and no-one was to blame but myself, but you can be sure that in future I will be using airport clocks to make sure I catch my flights on time. Thankfully, I was able to get another flight to New York which was due to depart two hours later than my missed flight.
However, the story does not end there.

My new boarding pass indicated that this flight was due to depart from Gate 30 in Terminal A, one of several massive terminals that make up Atlanta International Airport.

With plenty of time to sit and eat my unfinished ham and cheese sandwiches*, I waited near the check-in counter for my flight.

Maybe I was overtired from having risen at 5.00AM to catch my plane out of Tucson. Or maybe I was simply just not paying attention. Whatever the problem was, it did not register that the staff at the Delta check-in counter where regularly announcing flight details for St Paul, Minnesota! I mean I heard the announcements, but my addled brain simply did not raise a red flag and warn me about them.

At 5.00PM, ten minutes after boarding was due to start for my flight to New York City, I heard the check-in staff announce that the flight to St Paul, Minnesota was “…now boarding”.

Finally, my brain kicked into gear and I thought; “What? St Paul, Minnesota?”

In a rising panic, I found a staff member, and asked her what was going on.

She blithely answered that my flight to New York had been rescheduled to Gate 4!

Gate 4 was right down the other end of the Terminal A passageway. In a mad rush I grabbed my backpack and pushed my way through the crush of people heading to one of the hundreds of flights that depart from Atlanta every day.


Reaching Gate 4 did not give me any comfort at all. The electronic sign board showed this plane was departing for Cairo, Egypt!

Now folks, I am normally a very cool, calm and collected sort of guy, but this was too much. I have heard that Egypt is a great place to visit, but right then and there, I wanted to go to New York City.

To cut a long story short, the plane was going to Cairo – but it was passing through New York’s, JFK airport on the way. So with literally, 15 minutes to spare, I managed to catch my rescheduled flight, and settled into my window seat for a much needed rest and stress free flight to the Big Apple.

Of course, there was one more complicating factor to deal with. As I was departing Atlanta, my suitcase was reaching New York City. Yes, folks, I may have missed my earlier flight, but my luggage didn’t! Thankfully, the ‘system’ for dealing with lost or uncollected luggage worked exactly like it was meant to, and after a bit of running around between JFK’s Terminal 4 and Terminal 2, I was reunited with my belongings.

So there are two lessons to be learned here: keep one eye on airport clocks, and the other eye firmly fixed on airport departure boards – just in case your flight is moved from one departure gate to another.
* Mary, thanks for those ham and cheese sandwiches. Apart from some small inflight snacks, those sandwiches were all I had time to eat throughout a long travel-weary day.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tucson, Arizona

Image: Saguaro cactus rising high over the desert floor

If you ever hear me complaining about the occasional Adelaide heat wave again, please feel free to remind me about my stay in Tucson, Arizona, where the average summer temperatures are in the 100 plus degrees range – and not just for three or four days at a time, but often for weeks at a time. Apart from that, the heat, like South Australia’s summer heatwaves, is very dry and contains almost no humidity, which is a great relief.

I have come to Tucson to catch up with my American cousin, Maria and her husband, George, who have been living here for some 20 years.

As we left the airport at 10.00PM, just after my flight touched down from New Orleans (via Denver), my attention was immediately drawn to the giant saguaro cacti in the airport car park. These amazing plants can grow up to 50 feet in height, and can live up to 200 years.

Image: San Xavier Mission

Having introduced me to their friend (another George), my very gracious and accommodating hosts have given me a great introduction to Tucson, the surrounding mountains, and numerous National Parks in the vicinity of the city. One of the highlights was a visit to the National Historic Landmark, San Xavier Mission. The Mission was founded in 1692, although construction of the current church only began in 1783.

Only? Did I write, “only began”?

What was I thinking? The First Fleet hadn’t even set sail for Australia in 1783! By the time Captain Philip reached Sydney Cove in 1788, the building program for the San Xavier Mission was already five years old and would continue until 1797.

The oldest intact European structure in Arizona, the church’s interior is filled with the most amazing statuary and painted murals. Despite its age and designation as a historic landmark, it is still used as a working church, where Catholic Masses are held on a regular basis.
Image: One of the many amazing sculptures adorning the San Xavier Mission

Little is known about the people who decorated the interior of the church. It is thought that the artwork was most likely created by artists from Queretero in New Spain (now Mexico). The sculpture was created in workshops and carried by donkey through the Pimeria Alta to the Mission.

The San Xavier Mission is only about nine miles south of Tucson, just off of Interstate 19, and should be on every visitors list of places to see when visiting Tucson. As it is, some 200,000 visitors from all over the world come to see what is widely considered the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.

Surprisingly, there is no admission charge to visit the Mission, although there are donation boxes situated within the church which every visitor should contribute to.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

New Orleans

Image: The paddle wheeler Natchez
I don’t do humidity well at all, and unfortunately, every time I stepped outside of my New Orleans hotel room at the Parc Saint Charles, that is exactly what I was hit with. A wall of oppressive heat had blanketed the Crescent City, and there was no escaping it if you were going to get out and see anything, so I just had to sweat it out like everyone else and get on with it.

Clearly three nights and days were nowhere near enough to explore this amazing city, but it’s all I had time for. I took a cruise on the Natchez, which is the only true steam driven paddle wheeler still operating out of New Orleans. The two hour cruise, complete with commentary above decks, and a jazz pianist below, takes you some two miles up river to explore some of the more interesting features of the third busiest harbor in America.

Unlike New York harbor, where most merchant ships berth well away from Manhattan, a steady flow of shipping is constantly making its way through New Orleans 150 miles up the Mississippi to Baton Rouge, or some 95 miles back down the shipping lanes to the Gulf of Mexico. Ships can only navigate the river with the assistance of licensed river pilots who are in a sense the direct ‘descendents’ of the old river boat pilots, which once included the author Mark Twain.

From the deck of the Natchez, damage from Hurricane Katrina is still visible along many parts of the shoreline, despite the five years since that storm hit. However, there is little in downtown New Orleans to indicate the extent of the damage the city suffered when the levees gave way in August 2005.

The Superdome, which served as a makeshift shelter for thousands of displaced people is of course fully functional. In fact, in one of those happy serendipitous moments that can occur when you travel a lot, my visit coincided with the start of the National Football League season across North America, and I was soon caught up in the hoopla that surrounded the first game between the New Orleans Saints, and the Minnesota Vikings (for the record, the Saints won 14-9).

This gave me an opportunity to see my first major parade, complete with sports stars, marching bands, an air force flyover, brief performances by Taylor Swift and the Dave Matthews Band, and thousands of celebrating NFL fans.
Image: Not for the fainthearted, the heat and humidity testing even the fittest…
Of course, I also went looking for some of that famous Cajun cooking New Orleans is famous for. I can definitely say the Gumbo is a real winner, with Jambalaya coming in a close second. I also lunched on a catfish Po-Boy, a large bread roll stuffed with salad and crumbed catfish (with fries on the side).

A po' boy (also po-boy, po boy, or poor boy) is a traditional submarine sandwich from Louisiana. It almost always consists of meat or seafood, usually fried, served on baguette-like Louisiana French bread.

There are countless stories as to the origin of the term po' boy. One theory claims that "po' boy" was coined in a New Orleans restaurant owned by Benny and Clovis Martin, a former streetcar conductor. In 1929, during a four-month strike against the streetcar company, Martin served his former colleagues free sandwiches. Martin’s restaurant workers jokingly referred to the strikers as "poor boys", and soon the sandwiches themselves took on the name. In Louisiana dialect, this is naturally shortened to "po' boy."

[Source: Wikipedia…]

Image: New Orleans Po-Boy… [source: internet…]

Then there are the famous French pastries that visitors and locals rave about – and the most famous of these are the French-style doughnuts called, Beignets (pron: bin-yay). More than one person told me the best beignets in New Orleans were to be found at the Café Du Monde, and who was I to challenge that?

The original Café Du Monde Coffee Stand, at 800 Decatur Street, was established at the upper end of the New Orleans French Market in 1862. Since then it has been serving its chicory flavored café au lait and French-style beignets 24 hours a day, 7 seven days a week, except for Christmas Day and when "the occasional hurricane passes too close to New Orleans."

Beignets were brought to Louisiana by the Acadians. These were fried fritters, sometimes filled with fruit. Today, the beignet is a square piece of dough, fried and covered with powdered sugar. The French-style doughnuts are served in orders of three at Café Du Monde. [Source: Café Du Monde website…]

I can’t say I was blown away with my first beignet, but by the time I got to my third one I was warming to them in a pleasant sugar high kind of way.

I paid a visit to the Louisiana State Museum on Chartres Street, and enjoyed a look through their extensive exhibitions. Of particular interest was the exhibition Unsung Heroes: The Secret History of Louisiana Rock n Roll, which documents the contribution musicians from Louisiana have made to that genre.

I could write much more, and may return to the topic of New Orleans at a later date, but as I said at the start of this piece, three days is nowhere near enough to even get a decent feel for the city, let alone a good understanding of the people who call it home.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Streets of Philadelphia

Image: The sun sets on a Philadelphia skyline

It has been several days since I left New York City for Philadelphia. Having been here three days now, I thought it time to give you my initial impressions of this, the first ‘modern’ city in the New World. To my delight, the Comfort Inn Hotel is perfectly placed to explore the section of Philadelphia known as Old City, where some of the most interesting surviving areas of the Colonial era are located.

For instance, the area around the National Constitution Center has many historical buildings worth checking out including, Independence Hall and Congress Hall where many of the great debates relating to the Declaration of Independence raged. Here you will also find the Liberty Bell, one of the most important icons of American independence, the exceptional National Constitution Center, Christ Church where many of America’s founding father’s prayed and where seven signatories to the Declaration of Independence are buried including Benjamin Franklin, whose final resting place (which he shares with wife Deborah) is marked only by a large weather beaten stone slab.
Image: The final resting place of Benjamin Franklin and wife, Deborah

On my first walk I visited the U.S. Mint, where most of the nation’s coins are minted. A self-guided tour steers you along three floors of exhibits, artefacts and historical information outlining the history of the production of money in the United States. At various points along the tour you are able to look down onto the floor of the building where massive machines and presses produce millions of dollars worth of coins each week.

Personally, I was disappointed visitors didn’t get free samples of freshly minted new gold dollar coins. I’m mean, really, is that too much to ask?

I walked down Elfreth’s Alley, a narrow alleyway filled with homes dating from the 1750s and 1760s. All the homes, bar one, are still being rented and lived in by locals. The one exception has been turned into a museum filled with artefacts from the colonial era.
Image: Elfreth’s Alley

I lined up with many other visitors to see the Liberty Bell, which despite several attempts at repair, continued to fracture to the point where any ongoing attempts to plug the crack where finally abandoned in case the break continued to worsen.

To cap off an interesting afternoon, I was even able to observe a demonstration protesting against some of the new anti-immigration laws being enacted by Washington and other U.S. states. It would seem that under U.S. law, any child born in the United States is automatically classed as an American citizen. Unfortunately, giving birth to a child does not automatically bestow citizenship on the child’s parents. This has led to situations where a child’s mother or father has been deported back to their land of birth, leaving the child without at least one parental figure. Deportation may happen for a variety of reasons, including being convicted of a criminal offence.

This demonstration took place, appropriately enough on the lawns of the National Constitution Center where a large granite block clearly proclaims the words of the First Amendment which guarantees the right to free speech (see image below).
Image: The First Amendment cast in stone…

I was very impressed with the honesty with which many displays regarding this period of American history have addressed the issue of slavery. For example, at the site where remnants of George Washington’s first Presidential home once stood, and which is now being turned into a new exhibit, display boards feature information about nine of Washington’s own slaves, and discuss at length his attempts to arrange for the recapture and return of one female slave in particular called Ona (or Oney) Judge.

As a teenager, Ona Judge became the personal maid to Washington’s wife, Martha. Ona was described as a talented seamstress, who despite her (presumably) privileged position “…seized her freedom and escaped to New Hampshire…”

The description continues: “…Washington tried relentlessly to recapture her. He discovered where she had gone when a friend of Martha Washington’s granddaughter happened to encounter Ona in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Washington wrote to the Collector of Customs in Portsmouth and requested that he apprehend Ona and send her back.”

After speaking with Ona, the official declined to do so.

Two years later, Washington asked his nephew Burwell Bassett to seize Ona and her child, born since her escape. Bassett confided his intentions to John Langdon, the Governor of New Hampshire, and Langdon sent a warning to Ona which enabled her to again escape recapture.

One can only speculate regarding George Washington’s obsession with recapturing Ona Judge. Was it because she was so close to Martha Washington? Did he pursue her at Martha’s insistence? We may never know. However, the description that “…Washington tried relentlessly to recapture her,” does not reflect well on the nation’s first President.

Image: Telling it like it is. ‘Honest’ George Washington not quite the picture of perfection we were led to believe he was

This openness and honesty continues at the National Constitution Center where state of the art displays again trace the difficult ‘birth of a nation’, while addressing issues of race, slavery, immigration, numerous wars, and other vital matters of state.

For me, each building, display, and exhibition space has been like putting together parts of a giant jigsaw puzzle that for many years has symbolised the United States of America. The more I read and learn, the greater the level of understanding I am able to get about the land and its people.
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