Monday, 15 May 2017

Travelling with the Sisterhood - Manhattan, NYC

Last fall, I was invited to join the Facebook group, 'Girls In New York City'. Inspired by a previous trip some 19 years ago, some friends from Canada's East Coast decided they were overdue for a repeat performance.  As it turned out, their timing coincided perfectly with my initiation into retirement and a commitment to myself via my bucket list to see more of the world and spend more time with the women in my life.

Eventually, the group narrowed down to five savvy women and, yes, I'm counting myself in that demographic.   I was more than a little curious--one might even say a tad apprehensive--about how I would fare on this adventure. My two primary concerns were whether I  would enjoy the constant exposure of four other human beings over five days; and, as much as I love women, we can be pretty intense at times.  I also wasn't sure how I would handle the sensory overload that is NYC.  I am a prairie farm girl, after all and, if that in itself, doesn't suggest copious amounts of 'alone time', I've been running a home business as its sole employee for the past 11 years!   

At about the same time I realized our little travel group had an abundance of strong personalities, it also became apparent that there were diverging interests.  We found agreement on some of the key items such as what part of Manhattan we wanted to stay in and what Broadway show we should book.   As I was in charge of booking accommodations, I admit a moment or two of panic when my travelling companion received a text suggesting that my choice was dangerously less than satisfactory (emphasis on dangerous).  We soon realized the hoax when the the following order was to arrive with food and more wine, tagged with a photo of a building that was clearly not where we were staying. It seems we had at least one, if not three, pranksters in our midst!

Admittedly, there were a few times when our individual passions were surpassed only by the copious amount of wine consumed but, honestly, I thought we did amazingly well, considering we had five women, two bedrooms and only one bathroom. . . and did I mention, lots and lots of passion?  Evenings were filled with lively debate and peels of belly laughs and I really couldn't imagine this trip with any other group of women.  Okay, it's true, I loved every single moment of it!

As I had agreed to sleep on the pullout couch in the living-room, I was grateful to see that, while not exactly private, there was some semblance of separation. I'm not particularly shy about my body and, while I tried to maintain at least some modesty for the sake of my room mates, the pretense of a waist high bookcase masquerading as a privacy screen only goes so far.  To my knowledge, no one went home permanently damaged from the full impact of  all or part of my naked body first thing in the morning.  Overall, we were pleased with our clean, comfortable, and perfectly located home-away-from-home, literally steps away from Times Square, the Port Authority and a number of other NYC highlights. If you don't believe me, 52 traveler reviews rate it 4.8/5.  And here's the best part:  there's also a second one-bedroom unit, perfect for a couple or someone traveling with a small child.   AND, there's a jewelry business on the main floor where you can make purchases! If you want to know more, check out the links below.
Our first day in the City we decided we would do the Hop On, Hop Off Bus. . . BIG MISTAKE! Perhaps we should have caught on shortly after we left the condo, when the pouring rain turned to a veritable onslaught of rain, requiring both rain coats and umbrellas, and leaving them both leaking. . . but we didn't.  Perhaps we should have realized we had made a poor choice when we found ourselves slogging through water more than 100mm deep, but we didn't.  Or, perhaps when our jeans were so thoroughly soaked that they literally wicked water up our thighs, soaking us through to the skin; but we didn't.  The dead giveaway was when a dozen or so cell phones went off mid-tour announcing flood warnings throughout Manhattan and NYC.  Suffice to say, the day was a wash, in more ways than one.  While it may not have been raining on the bus, we were definitely not warm, as there seemed to be an aversion to turning on the heaters.  And because there was no heat, the windows fogged up, which meant no visibility.  True, it was not our best decision but we did much better after that.

Everyone was really excited about going to see a Broadway performance. . . everyone, that is, except me. I honestly had no idea what to expect, and therefore, I had no real expectations and, without expectations, it was unlikely I would be disappointed.  I thought it might be good and I knew the talent would be great, if only because one of my travelling sisters is, herself, an actress as well as a trusted friend.  She chose 'Waitress' which I wasn't familiar with, nor was I familiar with the music.  When she excitedly announced that Sara Bareilles had the lead. . . the name meant nothing.  When she directed us to Sara's recent pop hit on U-tube. . . still nothing. But truth be told, I was harboring a wee bit of resentment because the show I really wanted to see what 'Beautiful', based on Carol King's early career. . . and who could possibly not love Tapestry?  Why, I could sing the entire album if they would only let me!  Fortunately, I was not alone in that desire so a decision was made to split up.  Three of us went to 'Beautiful' while two went to see 'The Glass Menagerie' with none other than Sally Field!  Not only did they see Sally perform, they met her too! That, in itself, was a heady experience for them.

I have to say, we were all wowed by our choices and honestly, I couldn't quite imagine how 'Waitress' was going to beat 'Beautiful' but the following night we marched our way into a kilometre long lineup to see Sara Bareilles in the lead and, once again, I was totally amazed and impressed.  A Broadway show is more than just a defining element of NYC, the caliber of every aspect of the production from musicianship, acting, set design, stage lighting, even the theatre itself, is awe-inspiring.  The sets were so slick, I'm still trying to figure out how they so gracefully and seamlessly moved on and off the stage.

We booked a walking tour through Harlem Heritage Tours, where all guides are born, raised and still live in Harlem. I was hoping for one of the old men that I read often guided but instead we got the youngest guide, Neal Shoemaker.  We soon found ourselves seated in the Canaan Baptist Church singing and clapping and generally having a great time.  We weren't allowed to take photos, and this video doesn't even begin to typify the sound reverberating from the choir, but it will give you a good idea of the experience which we all loved.

It wasn't long before we discovered that Neal was really showing us his Harlem, starting with the projects he grew up in and where his mother continues to live to this day.  He made no secret that there was a time when Harlem was a pretty harsh environment to be growing up in but the Harlem he showcased was anything but.  It was evident that our guide was well known and respected and true to the lyrics of the song, everybody really did know his name! There are myriad tours to fit everyone through this group; if I were to go back, I think I would sign up for a Harlem Jazz Tour.  Neal brings to life the ambiance of that which is Harlem and Harlem strikes me as a pretty talented place.  He doesn't gloss over its history; he openly admits that, while tourism is one of the ways by which Harlem's profile can be elevated, there is also the potential of its destruction as it is slowly but surely transitioning as Manhattan's up and coming community. 

While gentrification may save the brick and mortar of a community, it can be devastating to its character as it displaces low income minority, long time residents.  In Neal's words:  "With each passing day I realize another way in which Cultural Tourism can be used as a double-edged magic wand to expose visitors to the authentic lifestyle of local residents and improve the quality of life for the overall host community – Harlem.  When balanced properly the possibilities are endless – this is what excites the good folks at the Harlem Heritage Tourism and Cultural Center"  It's all about that uneasy balance.

One of the last items on our to-do list was an NBC tour.  We originally tried to get tickets to Jimmy Fallon but, as they were sold out, this was the next best thing. Enjoyed by all, we had a chance to air our own little ditty, which gave us plenty of reasons to laugh at ourselves.  

While Times Square, Broadway and Harlem were highlights of my trip, there were other aspects of NYC that caught me off guard.  I can easily see why people want to return over and over and over again.  

First of all, the architecture is nothing short of stunning . . . everywhere. . . even in structures that have not yet made a full transition. Change is definitely in the wind.

I also discovered I have a fascination for all of the fire escapes.  Where I am accustomed to seeing one or two for each floor, as far as I can make out, there appears to be one for each unit and they really do become part of the living space.  

In every area that we visited, there were numerous churches.  While religious organizations have a role to play in the social fabric of any community, it seems to me that they are vital in many communities throughout the USA as a stopgap for those who might otherwise fall through the cracks.  Neal certainly impressed upon us their importance in Harlem.

Manhattan is not only packed with things to do, it's packed with people! Its population of more than 1.6 million is squeezed into only 59 square kilometres, making for a whopping 28,000 +/- people per square kilometer! In other words, it's a busy little place!  Before our arrival, I read that it was ill-advised to chat local New Yorkers up; that in order to live in such close proximity, a natural coping mechanism is to virtually ignore those around us and carry on about our business as if we were alone. Perhaps that's true. . . but I'm one of those people that chats everybody up. . . and I don't need a special invitation to do it!    It didn't take me long to discover that New Yorkers are just as friendly as the rest of the people I've met in the world.    When we stopped for a New York hot dog, we found ourselves being served up by an aspiring comedian.

When we were lost on the subway, people volunteered to help and those that didn't readily offered advise when asked . . . except a couple of folks who actually worked in the subway. . . we decided that they were simply unhappy in their occupation or, perhaps suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder from working underground to long.  When I needed help getting to the box office of Waitress (with permission) I latched onto the sleave of two passerbys and they happily hauled me right along with them.  And one of New York's finest was quite happy to accept a scratch behind the ear. . . the horse, not the man. 

As you might imagine, we ran out of time before accomplishing everything on our bucket list but that's not such a bad thing.  Now I understand why so many people continue to be drawn back to the Big Apple time and again. While I may be able to cross off NYC on my bucket list, it seems I need to add some specifics to it.  It's a big city and I'm told each of the five burrows has its own distinct personality; perhaps each one deserves it's own separate little mini-vacation.

As for travelling with the sisterhood, would I do it again?  In a New York minute! Perhaps we'll see you there!