New York City. The Big Apple. It’s one massive mind-blowing experience. There’s no other way to describe it. If you think this place is overrated, think again. By Malowa Oduol
newyork skyline

I have a friend who is in love with New York City. And I mean full-on, prime-time in love. It’s more than a passing infatuation; I’d say you could safely call it an affair. The relationship began with a first visit in 1998. Today, well over a decade later, the relationship is as strong as ever. The Big Apple is her “number one city in the whole world”, as she likes to call it, and whenever it comes up in conversation, the most amazing expression crosses her face: deep affection mixed with something a lot more primal – a thrilling excitement that clearly stirs something deep down in her soul.

I’m thinking of her as my plane comes in to land at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport and I catch my first glimpses of the Manhattan skyline. I’m curious to know what my own response to New York is going to be. I’ve heard so much about it; seen so much of it on TV and in the movies. Will it make me tick... or just tick me off? I can’t wait to find out.

All-round Americana

I have visited several American cities and America’s urban areas can be mind-numbingly boring and indistinct from each other when viewed at a certain level. There always seems to be a First Avenue or a Main Street somewhere in the mix. The golden arches of McDonald’s are everywhere in these diffuse swathes of urban sprawl (Detroit even has a set of yellow hoops that are so big you can see them from the sky as you come in to land!). The people are always unfailingly polite (although there is something slightly automated and disconcerting about their politeness, so that I am never quite sure how sincere they are). They usually enquire where you are from, while frowning slightly as they try to place your accent. And in the urban areas, everyone seems to dress the same – as if there is some unwritten dress code to which they all subscribe; at least in the big cities. But all of these things fly out the window when you set foot in New York. Because as anybody who has ever been here will tell you: this place really is like nothing else on the planet.

Heady Mix

Nowhere does the term “cultural melting pot” have more resonance than right here in New York City. Every bit as exciting as it is overwhelming; it is home to the international headquarters of the United Nations, after all. Looking for a world in one city? You've come to the right place. They say more than 170 languages are spoken within the five boroughs of this mega-city that has been welcoming immigrants since 1624. Which explains why – no matter how many times you come here or how many areas you visit – you will experience something different every time.

newyork street

JFK, as the city’s main airport is known, is situated in the borough of Queens. There are four other boroughs – Brooklyn, The Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. “Kennedy” is one of three large airports that serve this metropolitan area, along with Newark and La Guardia.

You will hear locals refer to New York City, specifically; not just New York. That’s because the city shares its name with the state which is its home. So New York City is quite distinct from New York State – best get your lingo sorted early on! In fact, words are one of the first things that struck me upon my arrival. Nothing can prepare you for the verbal onslaught of so many different accents. But I find it somehow reassuring and calming; as an international traveller it makes me feel that there is a place for me in this vast metropolis.

I try to avoid the scores of men who are trying to get me to use their taxis to get from the airport to the city. Their lilting accents blend into one, but there are definitely some Caribbean and African roots there; intermingled with the local twang. “Where are you going, ma? Taxi to Manhattan, ma?” A thought flashes through my mind: It’s as if I’m standing at the centre of the world. I decide to ask a lady with an American accent – I want the shuttle to Grand Central Station.

I am staying with a friend on Roosevelt Island just off Manhattan, so I need to get into the city first. There are several transport options – including taxis, shuttles, trains – but I have opted for the shuttle. A taxi would have cost in the region of $45.

Go, Go, Go

Anywhere else in the world, a large suitcase and backpack would scream “foreigner”. But New Yorkers don’t take much notice of new arrivals; they’re too busy making their way uptown, downtown and cross town – day and night. You’ll often spot a stylist or designer ferrying a rail of outfits or costumes to a photo shoot or audition. Or someone who is carrying a pet animal in a customised bag or container. Nothing is out of place here.

Even on Sundays the city is a hive of activity. And on a Sunday afternoon, the traffic surges through the city. I’ll tell you one thing: rush hour on Nairobi’s notorious Mombasa Road is nothing when you’ve seen these mean streets!

A driver of a yellow cab sticks his head out of the window to shout abuse at another driver whose vehicle is blocking an intersection. Obscenities are soon flying back and forth, the air thick with irritation. In the midst of all of this, a boy in a New York Yankees baseball cap and a pair of faded jeans casually weaves his way through the commotion, oblivious to danger and everything else that’s going on around him. That’s New York for you, right there.

Walk, Don’t Walk

People cross the street mostly when the pedestrian sign says WALK, but also when it doesn’t – DON’T WALK doesn’t seem to mean much to New Yorkers... jaywalking does! I remember a friend from New York once telling me, after taking in the pedestrian chaos at Kencom in Nairobi, “Whoa! This is so much like New York!” Car horns and sirens are going all the time. I suppose you could call it organised chaos.

Despite the hustle and bustle, walking is by far one of the best ways to see this awesome city, because nothing beats being at street level. New Yorkers joke that you can easily tell the locals from the visitors: the visitors are always looking up... and it’s true! I can’t help myself. I can’t stop staring skywards, because the tall buildings in this city are something else. “Skyscrapers” is the perfect word for them. And when you’re walking at street level, you get a real idea of the scale of these man-made wonders of the modern world. Many of the world’s oldest and most famous skyscrapers are to be found here, none of them better known than the iconic Empire State building.

Always on the Up

I make my way to the Empire State building. The foyer – all of it authentic Art Deco – is history or architecture, or you want to seeNew York from up high, this is the place to do it. (You can of course also go for a helicopter flip, if you have a few hundred dollars to burn!)

It isn’t cheap to go up to the top of the Empire State – $18 – but it’s worth every cent. After the events of September 11th 2001 this is once more the tallest building in the city and the views are truly amazing. No wonder the popularity of this building has endured through the ages.

On Fifth Avenue, is the Flat Iron building – no longer a skyscraper by today’s standards, but revolutionary nonetheless, when it was finished in 1902 – and the much “younger” and considerably taller Trump Tower, which looks even better than it does on TV.

Taxi!

The New York City street grid is easy to navigate. Avenues run uptown and downtown, streets run cross town, and are numbered chronologically. The avenues are also numbered, but there are a few exceptions – such as the famously posh Park Avenue, and also Madison Avenue.

Staying at street level, I’m keen to enjoy one of the adventures that is top on my list: I want to ride in a yellow cab. But it is not as easy as you might think.After watching two people wave down a cab, I feel confident enough to give it a try. All you have to do is wave your arm up and down – as you would to flag down a matatu. (It also helps if you look rushed and business-like, preferably with a phone in one hand!)

My cabbie is from Senegal and hasn’t been home in over 13 years. That notwithstanding, he doesn’t speak English very well. He came to New York to study engineering, fell in love with the city and stayed. It doesn’t sound as if he’s managed to complete his degree. I imagine it must be hard to study with all of this going on outside the window. What a place.

Another relatively cheap and easy way to get around is the New York subway. A standard rate applies, so provided you don’t exit the subway, you can keep changing trains until you reach your destination. You can go as far as you want, and get lost as many times as you want. People sleep on these subterranean trains; they eat on them, listen to loud music, or just stare blankly ahead. Most routes run 24 hours a day and even for a direction-challenged person like me, it’s easy enough to use.

Art for Art’s Sake

The subway delivers me safely and conveniently to within touching distance of three of the city’s must-see art museums – the Guggenheim New York on the Upper East Side, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”) on the edge of Central Park, and MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) in midtown. The collections are extensive and the building that houses each museum is a work of art in itself, but I feel a little overwhelmed. So much to see; so little time. After a long day’s worth of sight-seeing, I need to rest my weary bones. A few girlfriends back home told me to check out the Beauty Bar on East 14th Street, where they offer martini-and-manicure specials in the early evenings – $10 for a martini mixed to perfection, plus nails that are screaming to go out on the town. Now that’s the sort of sundowner I could enjoy every day.

central park

In keeping with the artsy theme of my day, I decide to check out spend the night at a theatre or comedy club, before meeting friends at a jazz club later. It’s a bit of a trek, but at the Upright Citizens Brigade on West 26th Street, we catch some incredible improvisational theatre for the $5 entry fee. I wish I could tell you where the jazz club is that we went to after that, but it’s all a blur. Not because I had one too many cocktails (New York mixologists really know their stuff, by the way), but rather because I wasn’t paying attention while my friends were whisking us around the trendy Tribeca District

This is where Robert de Niro hosts his annual Tribeca Film Festival (New York’s answer to Cannes and Toronto) in April and May, and where – by the looks of it – I would guess concepts like “inner city revival” and the idea of the “New York-style loft” were born. Tribeca stands for “triangle below Canal Street”, so that’s where you’ll find it.

The Munchies

If, after a night out, or a day’s worth of sightseeing, your tummy is none too full, New York has plenty in the way of food to keep you going. It is one of the culinary capitals of the world, and even if it doesn’t have as many Michelin stars as Tokyo, the food in New York is fantastic. I found the restaurants and cafés to be expensive, but the street food is cheap and affordable... and delicious. I suppose that explains why New Yorkers are always eating on the go. The ubiquitous hot-dog stand on every sidewalk is one of the best places to refuel.

Superb street food aside, my most novel eating-and-drinking experience had to have been PDT on St Marks Place. But first you have to find it! Go to Crif Dogs hot-dog joint, then make your way into the old-fashioned phone booth, lift the receiver... and a door will open. Welcome, to PDT (which stands for Please Don’t Tell.) The cocktails are legendary – and seasonal – and the food is just as good. If you haven’t yet had your fill from one of the street vendors, try the Wylie Dog, which comes with a dollop of deep-fried  mayonnaise. Take it from me: your life will never be the same again after you’ve tried this.

Mighty Dollar

I hadn’t planned on shopping much while I was in New York, because my budget didn’t really allow, but I must confess that I had more than a peak at Macy’s, and at Saks Fifth Avenue. The Americans sure know how to put together a department store that ticks all the boxes.

New York is a famously photogenic city (it isn’t one of the most popular sets for film and television productions without reason), so when my camera breaks, I have to make a plan. I discover the electronic stores along Broadway and 7th Avenue, near Times Square. I haven’t been to Times Square at night, so I take along Beryl, my friends’ daughter, in the hopes of not getting ripped off.

After browsing a few stores, Beryl and I decide on a quiet store at the end of the street. “I give it to you for $300,” says the shop assistant as he shows me a camera. After lengthy conversations with a series of shop assistants who sound like they belonged in The Sopranos – but who turn out to be Indian, we are soon talking about Nairobi. Their accents change immediately. We make our choice, and off we go. Not many clicks later, however, my brand-new camera promptly stops working. Back to the friendly gentlemen in the store... who turns out to be not so friendly anymore. He points at a sign that says “No Refunds” and shows us the door. I have just spent $300 on a dud. I am not impressed.

Show Time

Times Square made up for my disappointment, though. The square comes to life after dark. It’s as if an invisible director whispers, “Lights, camera and action!” and the show starts. Building owners are required by law to have neon signs on their buildings, and the place is super bright. For a moment I wonder how motorists keep from crashing into each other with so much distraction going on, but then I too am distracted – by two NYPD cops who have been coaxed into posing for a picture with an excited tourist.

As a journalist, Times Square is a special place for me; a bit of a pilgrimage site. It was named after the building that used to house The New York Times newspaper, still a benchmark of journalism excellence, and one of the best papers in the world today.

Out of nowhere, a group of four men turn on a ghetto blaster, twirl around, throw off their jackets and start dancing right there on the street, while a fifth guy films it all. Tourists’ cameras click furiously. New Yorkers rush past, customarily taking absolutely no notice of the impromptu performance.

At the same time, there’s a rap artist who’s putting on his own little show, and trying to convince us to buy his CD. He promises he’s going to be the next Jay-Z, so supporting him for only $30 will be a great investment.

Ticket touts harass you all the time. A girl in baggy pants and a hooded sweater calls out to me, “Do you want to see Chris Rock tonight? Come on! $20... it’ll be $50 at the door!” I just smile and walk on. Across the street, a group of boys are drumming, while a woman waves a placard that reads, “The world is ending! Jesus saves. Learn how.”

We head down Broadway. There are already people queuing outside the theatres in this internationally renowned theatre district. There are more than 40 theatres on Broadway alone, plus a thriving “off- Broadway” theatre industry. I’m not much of a theatre buff, but I toy with the idea of watching The Lion King as we walk past the venue. We see people in jeans; some are dressed in tuxedos. True to the character of this cosmopolitan city, anything goes.

Time to Go

Before I leave, I make time to visit the Statue of Liberty. She is as beautiful as I expected, standing on the tiny Liberty Island just off the tip of downtown Manhattan. I can see why more than three million people a year come to see the “first lady” of New York. She regally holds the torch in her right hand aloft in a greeting that has welcomed visitors, immigrants and natives arriving by sea, since 1886.

On my last day, I spend time relaxing in Central Park with friends. This massive urban park is set on 843 acres of public land, providing a green oasis for urban dwellers. My friends tell me that 25 million people spend time here during the course of a year. It isn’t hard to see why, because the park is well maintained and easily accessible. There are all kinds of different things going on in various areas of its vast expanse – from open-air chess and live music, to Chinese massages, cycling and running routes, horse-drawn carriage rides, and ponds with miniature boats.

As I lie back on the grass and look up at some of the most expensive real estate in the world, I am content that I have taken a decent bite out of the Big Apple. It has left me satisfied for the moment, but I know I will soon be wanting more!

Useful info

Getting there

  • Virgin Atlantic: Nairobi to London daily; London to New York (JFK and Newark) 5 times a day.
     www.virgin-atlantic.com
  • Kenya Airways: www.kenya-airways.com
  • British Airways: www.britishairways.com

New York City info

Websites:

  • www.nyctourist.com
  • www.nyc.gov/visitors