For a number of years, I transited through the United States on my way home to Canada from my adventures abroad. As a nomad, disconnected from old friends and family for months at a time, I would take the opportunity to visit friends scattered around my long-ago second country. But for the past three years, the cheapest stopovers were through Montreal or Toronto, not New York or Washington DC.
And so, my trips through the US ceased, and my friendships floundered. It had been three years since I’d stepped foot into our neighbour to the south.
Until a few days ago.
Originally, Bruno and I had planned on driving Totoyaya down the East Coast of the US this fall, allowing me to drop in on a few good friends along the way. For various reasons – visa regulations, bad timing for certain people, and close friends and family to visit elsewhere – we have opted for a different route south. And so I knew that making a special trip to New York and Washington DC, to reconnect with long-lost special people in my life, was in order.
Tale #1: New York City
First up was three nights in New York City to visit my old friend, Muna. We went to Lake Forest College together over a decade ago, and she’s the one that gave me such a stellar introduction to Nepal that I ended up living there for fourteen months. We also taught English in Bangkok together, and when she moved to New York in 2009 I visited her there four summers in a row.
Muna now lives in Sunnyside, Queens, with her partner (and fellow LFC grad and friend) Justin. They welcomed me into their “tiny (literally!) life,” as Muna put it, referring to her cozy one-bedroom apartment with an open kitchen/office/living room, a gorgeous-but-moody cat, and walls decorated with their funky touch of Nepali portraits, string instruments, and chosen mode of transportation.
On that first sweltering New York summer evening, we invited another old LFC friend over, and we all shared a simple meal over deep, intellectual conversation mixed in with breezy laughter and moments of reconnection.
From then on, New York City became the backdrop to our reunion. We went to Jacob Riis Park (also known as “the People’s beach”) on the outer peninsula of Queens, a semi-urban retreat from the urban-sprawl heat of the city; we took the 7 subway into Manhattan to watch Justin’s friend perform a one-hour solo singer-songwriter performance at a bar with three stages; we wandered around Chelsea Market, a massive trendy indoor market housed in the old Nabisco factory complex in the meat-packing district of Manhattan; and we shopped for spices and ate Nepali food in the Jackson Heights neighbourhood of Queen’s.
But being with Muna – talking to her, seeing her life, hearing about her plans and dreams– was the primary goal of this trip. As with every other visit I’ve ever had to New York City (with the exception of my one-week trip here in 2000 to visit my aunt Louise), then, New York City itself was not the subject of my trip.
Perhaps that is why, even after almost a dozen visits to New York, I’m still utterly perplexed by the place. The city is so full of people that it’s overwhelming. Its size, magnitude, scale is dizzying. The endless choices of things to see, do, and eat is paralyzing.
I personally couldn’t live here, but I love to visit. Each time I’m here, I understand more and more what the fuss about New York is all about. It’s just so alive. There’s a pulse that’s energizing, invigorating, exciting. There’s so much to look at. The city seems to be in perpetual breath, movement, growth. You can never be bored here.
I loved stepping out of the busy LaGuardia Airport into the bustle of people, of all shapes and sizes, waiting for the bus into town. I loved squeezing myself between strangers on to a subway seat and gazing at the faces of those who choose to call New York home. I loved emerging, disoriented, from the subway into a different panorama of this chameleon of a city. I loved pretending, even for just three days, that I was a local, walking up and down the streets of Sunnyside or Manhattan, popping into cafés, shops, and markets like Muna does every day of the year. For someone who loves trying on new shoes, there is almost no pair in the world like those of a New Yorker.
The diversity of New York is what I love best. It seems that a microcosm of the entire world, with every nationality, food, and idea that exists existing here. As I said in a blog post about New York years ago, what more could a traveling girl in search of culture want?
Tale #2: Washington DC
The morning of my departure, New York City had one more surprise in store for me – a quick catch-up coffee with my friend Sahnah (yes, the Sahnah from Morocco and Thailand and India and Mauritania and Senegal). We met up in an unknown (to me) neighbourhood of Queen’s (Long Island City), which faces Manhattan on the other side of the river and offers an unbelievable view of the city’s skyline.
And then, I was off. A five-hour Megabus ride brought me into DC’s Union station, where I met my friend Erin. We had met several years ago while teaching English in Thailand (where we’d sung in choir together, put on a high school musical, and traveled to the Philippines together among other things), and I’d visited her in DC twice since then, most recently in 2013 for her wedding.
DC felt like a drastic change after the urban megapolis of New York. Getting to the outskirts of the city, where Erin and Mauricio live, took a mere twenty minutes by car, and their street felt residential, with duplexes, a nearby community garden, and a forest park filled with deer (yes, I saw one!).
Within minutes of my arrival, the three of us were off on their road bikes into town to watch a 90s cover band, White Ford Bronco, perform at an outdoor venue near the Nationals’ baseball stadium. We rode on a bike path past the metro line and then past streets of residential townhouses, each painted in a different bright pastel color. We biked into the downtown, where, at every turn, was a beautiful, famous monument. Wide boulevards were lined with tall trees, and there wasn’t a skyscraper in view.
Over the next two days, Erin, Mauricio and I did a lot of biking. We biked to a restaurant for brunch, then to a few breweries to sample their flutes of microbrews. We biked to a weekend farmer’s market and a couple of bike shops. And we biked to an Ethiopian restaurant for my first dose of Ethiopian food since my search for the perfect injera in 2014. It was sweltering hot – even hotter than New York – and Erin and I found ourselves dripping just as much as we had when we’d worked together in Thailand!
As with Muna, it was wonderful to see Erin and to get to experience her life firsthand. I got to meet (and re-meet) some of her friends on Saturday night, as they hosted a fun party for me on their rooftop. I got to spread out in Erin’s luxurious second bedroom with ensuite bathroom, and drive around in their car to get errands at Walmart for the party. And, of course, I got to chat the days away with my old friend!
There’s a funkiness and epic-ness that felt missing in DC after New York City. There seemed to be less culture, less ease of transportation, less density of life. Yet, it’s a much more manageable size than New York, and I appreciated the bike paths, space, and aesthetics of the downtown core.
Both Washington, DC and New York are worthy cities to visit. They meet different needs, but both should be on any traveler’s itinerary. Go to DC to visit the museums and monuments, to experience the history of the United States, to get a pulse of modern-day politics in action. Ride a bike or take a bus tour, and make sure to visit the residential neighbourhoods. Then go to New York to be blown away by its diversity and magnitude, to feel and be part of its pulse. Ride the subway, get off on random stops, go out to the boroughs.
If you’re lucky enough, like me, to have friends in each city, then all the better – both towns make great backdrops for happy reunions. If not, go anyway, and let these amazing cities speak for themselves.