For Part I, click here.
For Part II, click here.
Before I get started on this final post in the series, a huge shout-out is in order for all of you, dear readers. Over a thousand views in less than two weeks since Part I went online was something I never expected. Thank you all so much!
Part III…here goes.
July 3, 2015
Just as I’m currently metaphorically on top of the world at the overwhelming response I’ve got to this series of posts, I was then physically and quite literally on top of the world, standing on the 86th floor of what was once the world’s tallest building, watching the day gradually transition into the night as the sun set on my third evening in New York City.
That’s when I realised something really cool. A year or so ago, during my depressingly long summer vacation, I’d completed this 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a city skyline. As the night slowly but surely crept up on the onlookers on the 86th floor, the sight looked eerily familiar: something that had been split into a thousand frustrating yet gloriously time-consuming pieces not too long ago. I whipped out my phone and scrolled frantically through my gallery, searching for the image that would answer my question. When I found it, I smiled to myself. There it was… The New York City skyline staring up at me from two directions: a 5-inch version on my phone screen and a life-size version before my very eyes, both gorgeous in their own right. Some incredible foreshadowing, huh!
I hung around for a while, taking in the significance and the magnitude of the scene. I dared not sit down in the fear that my quivering legs would give way. Yet, there was time for one last adventure. I grabbed a Starbucks coffee to go, feeling “American af” and took off towards downtown Manhattan and the West Village.
From the architectural wonder on West 34th Street, I set off with one goal in mind: Shawarma. Destination: Mamoun’s. It was a long walk and I’d love to tell you all about how much I enjoyed it, breathing in the city air and feeling the buzz of the throng of New Yorkers still out on the streets, but honestly I was far too tired to care about any of that. I have absolutely no pictures from here on out to show because I just didn’t have the energy to coerce my fingers into holding the camera. I remember passing the fairly famous Flatiron building and limping through Union Square on 14th Street where a live concert was in progress, but regular hunger pangs played spoilsport as my nose guided my further downtown towards 8th Street.
As I walked further downtown than I’d ever been, I noticed a gradual change in the personality of the neighborhoods. I’d left the incredibly tall skyscrapers of the business district behind and had walked into a completely different side of Manhattan. The roads were narrower, the sidewalks smaller and the buildings shorter. Only later I figured out that I was walking amidst the “campus” of NYU, roaming the streets the college kids did. I made it to 8th Street and found Mamoun’s, where I ordered the famous Shawarma with a side of Falafel.
This may have been the exhaustion talking, but it was the best meal of my life. (Actually, as we speak right now I’m digesting the new “best meal of my life”: a 14 oz New York Strip Steak that I devoured in the ‘Capitol Grille’ in Washington DC. But that’s a story for another time.) No offence to the classic ‘Empire’ Shawarma back home in Bangalore, but I honestly don’t think I’ll be able to look at those little slices of heaven in Shivajinagar in the same light after having eaten what New York’s finest had to offer.
Having licked my plate clean, I trudged back to the subway station and somehow found my way back to 1500, Bedford Avenue where I collapsed onto my bed and blacked out.
July 4, 2015
My last full day in the most gorgeous place on earth had dawned on me. Not exactly dawned, because it was the middle of the afternoon when I finally woke up after the previous night’s escapades, but close enough. Today was all about the 4th of July fireworks; everything else was relatively irrelevant. Batteries recharged, I headed to Williamsburg Park for the famous international food festival ‘Smorgasburg’.
My first ever legitimate food festival and oh, what an experience it was. I ate Mofongo from there…
And scotch eggs from there…
Wait…what? What the hell is a Goa Taco!?
I think I ate something to do with a duck from there…
It was basically a plethora of culinary oxymorons that had no right to be placed together in the same sentence. It was outrageous. Outrageously beautiful. The icing on top of the cake was the breathtaking view of downtown Manhattan as the waters of the East River gently caressed the Brooklyn shoreline, making the moment resound as a symphony of perfection. It’s incredible how the human race with all its idiosyncrasies manages to blend the most unlikely combinations into something that makes life worth living; something that spreads that little glow of warmth through our systems we sometimes refer to as contentment. Yes, I was content.
Confession: I had no idea what the significance of the 4th of July was until a few years ago when I heard the song ’21st Century Breakdown’ by ‘Green Day’; “…born on the fourth of July”. I mean, I’d heard the reference several times in movies and TV shows previously, but I’d never really bothered to look it up until Billy Joe Armstrong awoke my curiosity. I googled it and all of a sudden, life made sense! Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ made sense! (Yeah, I had an obsession phase with that song too.) It was one of those big “OHHHH, HOLY SHIIIIT!” moments.
Stomach capacity overrun, I headed off to my next destination: The High Line. Abandoned in the 1980’s, the High Line used to be the hub of the Manhattan industrial district. As if I hadn’t done enough walking as it is, I decided to walk the unique 1.45-mile-long linear park. A rather long subway-ride later, I reached a part of the city, the perfect description of which is “nothing but Instagrammable”. And that’s as accurate as it’s going to get. I mean, I looked around the place and saw it through Instagram filters on those wannabe photography pages with pretentious deep quotes accompanying it.
See what I mean?
As cliched as you can get with graffiti. But I loved every minute of it. Honestly, I’m a sucker for cliched.
Here’s where I think I overdid it a little bit, I think. The Firework-window was swiftly creeping up on me, but I felt this urge to push the limits and risk walking the Brooklyn Bridge before making my way back to Williamsburg Park for the main event of my trip. I’m just going to skip this next bit because it was just a comedy of errors involving me getting completely lost and panicking. I did, however, manage to get to the bridge in the end but had no time whatsoever to stick around.
That’s when the coolest part of my trip began. I found myself nearly hanging out the door of a Brooklyn-bound subway enroute to Williamsburg Park and saw America for the first time in all her glory for what she really was. The generally spacious compartments were overflowing with people sporting the colours red, white and blue, the audible buzz of excitement palpable in the air. I suddenly had this flashback to “the good old days” of hanging out of the doors of the ‘401’ BMTC buses on the way back home from my previous school, quite literally clinging on for dear life from the slowly rusting bars, having the time of my life just being Indian. I’d never in my wildest dreams ever imagined that I’d soon be having a similar experience in what I considered to be a far more sophisticated place back then and I couldn’t help but crack up inside my head.
As the last stop arrived, the entire train emptied and I joined the throng of eager locals exiting the station. Only later, I realised I was one of 3.5 million people about to watch an incredible display of human creation, born out of unparalleled patriotism and passion. I made it to Williamsburg Park and saw this…
Fireworks photography is deceivingly complicated and despite having pulled off a couple of decent shots earlier in life, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the intricacies of the discipline. However, I knew enough to be certain that there was no way I’d be able to get a clear shot from the ever-swelling crowd at the waterfront. On impulse, I turned around and walked out of the park, switching to my telephoto lens on the move, mind entering a state of photography overdrive. I jogged up the road parallel to the park until I found the perfect spot: a quiet corner about a half mile from the park across from a chain-link fence, with a decently clear view of the skyline. (Damn, I’ve started talking in terms of miles. Craaaaaaaaaazy!)
Normally, a tripod is a must-have for a fireworks-shoot. But owing to the stringent excess-baggage laws of international flights, and basic laziness of course, I had to improvise. I set my backpack on the hood of the conveniently placed car, propping my camera upright with the help of a water bottle and my wide-angle lens, plugging in my remote trigger and finally pausing for breath after hours of self-induced panic. My delicately poised arrangement complete, I settled in a cozy corner for the countdown and my mind wandered…
My Dad has always been the adventurous kinds. I mean, just last week he was somewhere in the middle of Vietnam, biking cross-country. Pretty cool stuff! Having taken a two-week long drive through the National Parks of Tanzania in the summer of 2014, the two of us arrived at a completely desolate and absolutely unexplored part of the country near Lake Natron. There wasn’t a telephone pole or a power grid within a 50-mile radius of the place. This whole trip to NYC would never have been as enjoyable as it was if, on that trip, I hadn’t climbed a series of treacherously slippery natural rock formations on the base of a cliff, a tripod strapped to my back, following a Maasai guide who didn’t speak a word of English, in search of an elusive waterfall, having left my Dad behind because he couldn’t make the climb.
That was my first experience walking into the unknowns completely alone in an alien land, with absolutely no idea what to expect. Must say, I loved every minute of it. Anyway, after an eternity of successive near-death experiences, with my Maasai guide waltzing along as if the deadly terrain was nothing more than a slight incline on the way to breakfast on a Sunday morning, we finally made it. Honestly, those few moments changed my life forever: setting up my tripod in a precarious position on the edge of a rock face and shooting my favourite image of all time…
By this time, quite a crowd had gathered in my corner, but none of them seemed to notice the little Indian kid sitting atop a car. At this point, loneliness struck for the first time. Everyone around me seemed to be with their families, holding beers and hot dogs, enjoying what looked like the happiest day of their lives. Not that I wasn’t having a wonderful day, but I just felt…alone, cradling my camera and waiting for the show to begin.
The moment the first explosion rocked the until-then seemingly endless bottomless pit of darkness over the Skyline, painting it a million shades of red, white and blue with one effortless swipe, all my inhibitions faded away, leaving me staring in awe across the East River. Almost unconsciously, as if in a trance, I fiddled with the controls on my one faithful companion, squeezed the remote trigger and pretty much nailed it on the first attempt.
These shots don’t, by the wildest stretch of the imagination, do justice to the spectacle I had the good fortune of witnessing.
The display shattered all my unreasonably high expectations. It truly was incredible.
It was the perfect finale to what had been probably the greatest experience of my life.
As the sound of the final explosion reverberated across the islands and the last of the glorious lights faded away into the sound of silence, I realised with a curious mixture of satisfaction and disappointment that my journey of a lifetime had come to an end. I’ve come away from this trip with a lifetime ahead, a world to explore and an undying passion for travel. And that’s where I take my leave, dear readers. It’s been a pleasure.