Wednesday, September 06, 2006

some more travel notes

I've been here nearly a week now, and all the blogging I have managed are my notes from the flight. But that should give you an indication of how busy I have been. It's all been good though, despite little fits of home-sickness, and periods of feeling very daunted, and out of my depth, and a bit out of control. I guess, though, that the challenge of all of this is part of what I wanted when I decided to come here. I had the option of another apparently fairly cushy position at a university with lots of South African faculty and students, and while that had its appealing side, I really wanted to be exposed to difference. So that is exactly what I'm getting. But New York is a great city to be doing this in. There are so many different environments and opportunities that it takes only minimal effort to find at least something you like, even if it is only the parks and green markets, or a particular eatery, or whatever. There are just opportunities for everything everywhere.

So here we go on the next lot of travel notes:

I was expecting long queues and hold-ups with unsympathetic officials at the airport, but to my amazement, things moved pretty quickly. There were queues, but they were really well marked, and there were lots of attendants to help me get all my papers and such in order, and then my meeting with the inspector literally took seconds. He opened the massive envelope that had been stapled into my passport since it was returned from the embassy with my visa, and despite all the scary looking seals on it, all it contained was the form that the university had sent me, and that I had to sigh when I applied for the visa. He then stapled a little card into my book, took my two index finger prints digitally, took a digital photograph (I can only imagine how terrible all those photographs of people who have been traveling for hours must look), and I was done. Then it was a matter of renting a luggage trolley for $3, quite expensive, I thought, but absolutely essential with my massive bags, and collecting said bags, before heading out into the airport to seek out transport. While there were no signs for them, I had read about the SuperShuttle online, and in one of my travel books, and so I found an information desk, and asked about it. The woman behind the desk very nearly undid the great impression I had received of the airport up to that point by being very unfriendly, but she phoned and ordered the shuttle for me, and gave me a number which was called when the driver arrived. I then got my first taste of what New Yorkers are really like when so many people rushed to my aid when one of my bags fell off the trolley that you would have thought it was a medical emergency. So many strangers willing to help....
The driver of the shuttle then led me out to his little blue minibus which, to my South African mind, looked suspiciously like a South African taxi, though in better repair, and loaded up my luggage. Once inside the bus, though, all similarities to a taxi dissipated. It was airconditioned, high-tech with GPS, fancy radio and cellphone hands free kit for the driver, seatbelts for the passengers, and far more space than you find in the average taxi. There were other passengers, and the woman who ordered the shuttle for me warned me that it might stop at other locations on the way, but in fact, it stopped at my building first. We got into the city via a really long tunnel under the East river, and I was a bit disappointed that we weren't taking one of the famous bridges, but I'm sure it was much quicker underneath. Traffic doesn't stop in the tunnels, and so we moved through quite quickly. There is a toll gate at the enterance, but unlike the manual pay booths we have at home, or even the card swipe systems you get in some places, the driver operated this one with a little white plastic box-like device that he held up to the windscreen, and that was read by some sort of sensor. I've never seen anything like it before, but it is obviously quite effective, as we didn't even need to hesitate at the toll gate.

There is something almost magical about arriving in New York. The city seems to suddenly grow up around you, the buildings getting taller and taller, and the pace faster, untill you are imersed in it like in the tidal pool at the bottom of a high-speed water slide. It fills your ears and nostrils, and all your senses, and you are there in the center of it in moments. I was so busy enjoying the sights around me as we drove that I didn't hear the driver call my address (the Brooklyn accent didn't make it any easier, though. I had to have him repeat it a couple of times before I was sure I had heard correctly), and landed up holding the shuttle up a bit. He seemed a little annoyed that I didn't know what the building looked like, but as it was, and still is, covered in scaffolding, that wasn't too surprising. The building number was completely invisible from the street, which created some confusion. Nonetheless, there were other students unloading in front of it, and so that made it all somewhat easier to find.
The shuttle driver unloaded my bags, I paid him (substantially less than I would have paid a yellow cab driver), fiddled around with the unfamiliar money for a bit, and finally added the inevitable tip, and he was off, and I was left to my own devices. The first challenge was to get my bags across the street. I could lift any of them one at a time, but with the exception of the hand luggage, one at a time was all I could manage, and the thought of leaving anything unattended, even for the amount of time it would take me to cross the street, was not appealing. And so I opted in stead for a mixture of dragging and carrying all of them at once, in very slow stages, across the street and down the pavement to the building entrance. At that point I hit another snag, in that the street was suddenly frighteningly busy, with cars wizzing, it seemed, in all directions. The fact that it was a one way street didn't occur to me untill a few days later. At that moment, all I could think was that the cars should be coming from the wrong direction, though which direction right was, exactly, was beyond me, and I had to not get run over. I waited untill a lull in the traffic, and then gathering all my final reserves of energy together, I picked everything up at once, and hobbled across the street at the fastest pace I could manage, looking, I'm sure, every inch the confused tourist, sweating profusely, and puffing like an old fashioned stove-top kettle that has been over-filled. The fact that I found myself so funny I couldn't help but laugh out loud just added to the chaos, as I lost my ballance climbing from the street onto the opposite sidewalk, and dropped everything but my precious computer. Again, the generous New Yorkers stepped up to the plate, rushing to my aid, and getting me and my bags into the appropriate building and in front of the check-in desk in no time. What great people!

I checked into my room with minimum fuss, and suddenly, for the first time in about 30 hours, I was alone. Quiet (relatively). Peaceful.

The apartment is simple, and functional in a fairly basic sense. I had hoped to have a pick of rooms, but in fact the rooms had been assigned, and so there was no choice. My room is lovely, though. My window looks out over a tiny patch of garden, at present filled with scaffolding, but frequented by a single, rather weary squirrel who comes across the road looking for who knows what. I hadn't brought sheets or towels or such like with me, and there is no overhead lighting in the bedrooms, so for my first night I slept in a sleeping bag straight on my mattress that I found by stumbling through the dark after switching off the kitchen lights. I was tired enough that it didn't matter.
And I slept for about 14 hours.
When I woke in the morning, the first thing I wanted to do was go to my department and get registered, so I left my room as it was, and headed down-town, map in hand. I had figured out that the simplest way to the university was to walk all the way down fifth avenue to Washington square, and it really is. The only problem was that on that first day, I counted the first few avenue numbers, and then assumed that I was on Fifth avenue. For anyone who knows New York, you will be aware that that isn't quite how it works. The avenues are numbered 1-3, and then named Lexington, Park and Madison avenues, before the numbers begin again at 5. I counted Lexinton avenue as 4, and Park avenue as 5, and as Park avenue is pretty big, it seemed to make sense. So I walked down Park avenue to Union square, and began searching for the Triumphal Arch. No luck. It took me a good ten minutes to figure out that I was at the wrong place, and get out my map book. Luckily, despite these slight anomalies, New York is relatively easy to navigate, and so I found my way with relative ease to Washington Square. It really is a lovely park, with a fountain South of the arch, and really tall trees everywhere, with squirrels and birds all over them. And 5th avenue at the top end is beautiful, lined with lovely old buildings and, to my delight, Gingko Biloba trees. Now aside from being really beautiful, and medicinally beneficial, Gingko is also supposed to remove pollution from the air, and is therefore a particularly good tree for a city like this. Whoever planted them (and there are many all over the city) has made me very happy.

Once I had walked around Washington square admiring it, and my new university, I set out to find 1/2 fifth avenue, which is the address of the Graduate School offices. With an address like that, you need only guess at the type of location. I walked up and down both sides of that block, and around the block, searching for the building numbered 1/2, to no avail. The fact that there are several private, high-class apartment buildings in the same street with signs on them strongly reinforcing the desire for privacy of the residents, is not conducive to asking for directions, and so I gave up, and walked to the other side of the park, to the Kimmel center for Student life. It really was the best solution, as there were tables with maps and flyers and all sorts of helpful bit of information for the lost student, and in no time at all, someone had instructed me on all that I needed to do to get around. As it turns out, I don't have to go to 1/2 fifth avenue at all, untill I collect my first cheque (check in the American spelling), and so the fruitless hunt was unnecessary. Nonetheless, it turns out that in order to reach it, the intrepid student has to ignore one of the privacy notices posted at the entrance to a little garden between 1 5th avenue, and the building on Washington place that backs on to 5th, and walk down a pathway, towards a statue of William Shakespeare, untill a door which is, to all intents and purposes, concealed from the street, comes into view. That is 1/2 5th avenue. So now I know.

My next stop was the Office of International Student Services, one block away from the Kimmel center, and there I was given a list of times for the check-in workshops, and a series of maps and pamphlets that directed me to my next location. The student card center. It was a bit of a walk from the OISS, but I was beginning to discover that the violet NYU flags that hung from all university building are my friends, and so it wasn't difficult to find. My card took about 20 minutes, more forms and a digital photo to get, but suddenly the world of the university was open to me. I could get into the buildings at will, and get into the library, though I would only be able to use those resources once I was registered.

From the card place I went back to the OISS, where I was plied with wonderful big, chocolaty biscuits, and all the info I need to remain a legal alien :). And then on to my department.

The music administrator who I have been corresponding with the most was the only person in the building when I arrived, but she is just so lovely and friendly that it was great to meet her. She gave me a tour of the department, and all the keys and security codes I need to get in, and also gave me great info and suggestions about getting my first shopping done. And so that was my next stop.

I found a KMart on Broadway, and spent a frightening amount of money buying just the basics I needed to get settled into my apartment: bed linen, a towel, basic crockery and cuttlery, and a deep saucepan for boiling water in (the kettles were all sold out), and later for cooking, a lamp for my bedroom, and my first round of the very basic groceries that one just can't live without. Of course, what I didn't think of was how I was to get all of it home, and while the shop has a delivery service, I had spent just too much cash to be able to afford that. So I stood on the side of the road for about an hour with an overflowing trolley, trying to catch a taxi. Again, the friendly New Yorkers made the situation far more pleasant than it might have been. A man selling jewelery and painting on the side of the road chatted to me about the city, and his home town, and finally helped me catch a taxi with a fabulously friendly driver who helped me carry my shopping into my building when we got there. What great people!

I was just unpacking my new belongings, making my bed and arranging my crockery when my new roommate arrived. I blogged about her before, twice, and so it was really great to put a face to the name. She really is lovely! The first thing we did together was go and visit Whole Foods, and get our first shopping done. It is a great place! a bit like Woolworths or Fruit and Veg City (the smarter one) at home. Lots of pre-cut fruits, and pre-prepared meals.
By the time we got home, I was so tired, and my feet were so swolen, I felt like I might never walk again. New York is really going to keep me fit. So it was a light supper, a quick shower, and into bed.

And I'll post the next installment when I have finished my first class assignments! That is a whole other story.

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