10 important lessons learned from a week in New York City


 

A week in New York might not be enough to properly get to grips with the city – but it’s long enough to learn some valuable lessons for next time. Such as…

Weekly Metrocards are far less hassle

You’re going to use the Subway a lot, and that means using Metrocards a lot. Buying single cards each time is madness, while multiple trip cards involve keeping track of how many journeys you’ve got left. It’s far better to just get the $30 weekly card, with unlimited trips.

If trying to pay for it by card, don’t get stumped by having to enter a US zipcode – putting in 99999 will work for foreign cards.

Beware cash-only restaurants

You expect to see cash-only signs in small, cheap eateries, but New York has an annoyingly high amount of mid-range to pricy restaurants that won’t let you pay by card too. This is particularly so in Brooklyn. They’ll claim it’s because of the high fees they’re charged by credit card companies, but it’s basically about tax dodging or trying to be cool. If planning to pay by card, check before you order.

 

 

Brooklyn can be closer

It is generally cheaper to stay in Brooklyn than Manhattan – but don’t assume that it’s further away from the action. For the Statue of Liberty cruises and the 9/11 Museum in Lower Manhattan, for example, you’re only one Subway stop away in downtown Brooklyn. It’d take a lot longer to get there from Midtown.

Beware weekend Subways

The main drawback of staying in Brooklyn is that weekend subway closures can wreak havoc with travel plans. On Saturdays and Sundays, vast swathes of the network are closed for maintenance – check online to see which lines are affected before sauntering to a station.

Dodge the lights

If you prefer to walk (and that is the best way to see the city), it can be worth heading west if trying to cover a big distance. Walking along the High Line (a park along what was once an elevated railway line) or through the Hudson River Park ends up being much faster than waiting for the lights to change at every block.

Stick to the outer avenues

If you do head that way, you’ll find that New York’s outer avenues are far more interesting in terms of bars and restaurants. The soullessness tends to congregate between 4th and 7th Avenue. The main thoroughfares either side of that are much more fun.

Prebook the big attractions

Show up at pretty much any major attraction and you’re likely to find a depressingly long queue outside. This certainly applies to the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock observation deck, 9/11 Museum and Statue of Liberty cruises. Save time and temper by booking pre-allocated time slots online.

And don’t rule out the small ones

Some of New York’s less heralded museums can end up being more interesting than the bigger ones. The Museum of American Finance on Wall Street, is a geekily fascinating look at how money works. The Skyscraper Museum is brilliant for tall building enthusiasts and the JP Morgan Library is packed with rare books in visually astounding settings.

Look inside

Many of the city’s favourite buildings are ogled from the outside, but they’re just as gorgeous inside. Grand Central Terminal’s celestial ceiling is the obvious example, but the Chrysler Building’s marble-drenched, stunningly painted lobby is often overlooked too.

Drink early, and drink on Mondays

Happy hour drinking is the way to merriment without stripping the wallet too badly. These generally finish at around 7pm, but a lot of bars keep happy hour prices all day on Mondays. It’s the slowest day of the week, and they want to lure punters in….

 

 

 

 

Taos Pueblo

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David Whitley visits one of the oldest settlements in the US, and quickly gets over the photography ban

 

The reaction was one of spluttering disgruntlement. Being asked to pay $16 to see what is essentially a collection of quite cool-looking buildings, and then being told you’re not allowed to take any photographs, is always likely to raise the hackles.

 

That we’d driven for over four hours to get to Taos Pueblo didn’t help. But, playing the responsible tourist, we left the cameras in the car boot and wandered on in.

 

The initial appeal of the Taos Pueblo is the setting. It’s on a 2,100m-high plateau beneath the tallest mountains in New Mexico. Wheeler Peak, the biggest of the Sangre de Cristo range, comes in at just over 4,000m tall.

 

But a close second comes the buildings, made traditional adobe style from earth, sand, straw and water. They’re recoated every year as the winter weather cracks the exteriors. They’re remarkably simple, but highly distinctive – the clay-like orange/ brown colour and flat roofs organised in up to five unsymmetrical tiers have a hugely photogenic quality to them.

 

What is truly remarkable, however, is how long the village has been there. The inhabitants reckon it’s the oldest continually inhabited settlement in the United States, having been built somewhere between 1000AD and 1450AD. There are plenty of other places that would debate that assertion, but there can be no doubt that the tribe was living there way before Spanish adventurers arrived in the area.

 

The inhabitants are known as the Red Willow People, after the trees lining the stream which provides the Pueblo’s water supply. They’re not easily lumped in as part of a larger tribe, as the village historically kept itself to itself, mixing with outsiders through trade rather than attempts at empire-building. Their language has never been written down or recorded, and the Red Willow People insist it never will be.

 

The homes within the Pueblo boundaries – although most now live outside with modern amenities – have no running water or electricity. A sign by the stream asks people not to wade in it – an attempt to keep the water quality as high as possible.

 

Many of the buildings have been turned into arts and crafts shops, or rudimentary restaurants where fry bread tacos are cooked in traditional outdoor ovens. We walked into one of them, perused the tiles, and asked about the photography ban.

 

It turns out that we’ve arrived on a feast day – it’s part of the San Geromino festival – and that photography has long been banned on all feast days. Any spectacles are for the people, not the world.

 

But why the festival? And who is San Geronimo? Well, it’s not the Apache warrior Geronimo, as I’d been expecting – he has nothing to do with this area. It’s boring old St Jerome – a Catholic saint who was born somewhere in central Europe in 347AD. He too has nothing to do with Taos, but the woman selling postcards explains that his feast day was the crucial factor in him being celebrated.

 

There has been an autumn fair going on around September 30th for centuries, it seems. People from other tribes and villages would come to sell crops and pelts. When the Spanish came and foisted Catholicism on Taos Pueblo, they just picked the saint whose dates matched.

 

Elsewhere, we leaf through textiles for sale in another house, assuming that weaving is a traditional thing in Taos. “It’s not,” the woman replies. “These are made elsewhere, inspired by the Pueblo, but nothing in them has symbolic significance to use.”

 

Well, if that’s the case, why aren’t they making their own? “Because we’ve never made textiles here. Only a few villages do. We’ve always been a corn-growing community – there are no sheep to raise, and there’s no cotton to grow here.”

 

The afternoon continues like this, idly asking questions and having expectations confounded. That we’re not allowed to take photos is soon forgotten. Treat people like people, rather than human statues that will look good in a photo album, talk to them, and it’s amazing how much more vivid the picture you get is.

 

by David Whitley

  

 

 

You can get the USA included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

Earthships of the desert

 

In New Mexico, David Whitley goes to have a laugh at some weird hippy houses – but comes away with a less cynical view

  

On closer inspection, it seems that the circular blue and green spots on the walls are made from glass. Or, more specifically, they’re the bottoms of glass bottles. Decorative, surreal and making good use of recyclable materials then.

 

In all honesty, though, the glass bottles are probably the least weird thing about the homes in the Greater World Community. On a high altitude desert plain, just outside Taos in New Mexico, this initially appears to be an odd-looking hippy commune. But there’s more to it than that – the emphasis is as much on saving money as saving the environment.

 

The houses aren’t really houses – they’re ‘Earthships’, and the Greater World Community acts as a showcase for them. From here, workers go around the world to construct these weird little homes – some of which look like Gaudi has been let loose on an igloo.

 

They’re designed for people who want to live sustainably and off-the-grid. Heating and cooling systems are built into the construction, water is reused as many times as it feasibly can be, and a combination of new science and old wisdom is used to make everything work.

 

The outer walls are done adobe style (clay, sand, straw and water), just as the native Americans in the area have done for centuries. But those walls are made thick to keep the heat in – and the interior insulation is hundreds of old tyres, packed with earth. The theory is that you can find old tyres pretty much everywhere in the world – it’s as close as you’re going to get to a renewable building material.

 

The sun-facing wall, however, is made of large glass windows – natural lighting at its finest. And behind those windows are all manner of plants, grown using an aquaponic system that requires 90% less water than soil-based gardening. Fish are kept in tanks, their droppings used as fertiliser for the plants. The water for watering those plants? Well that’s channelled from the sinks and showers.

 

Drinkable water comes from rain and snow, stored in rooftop tanks. Energy comes from sun and wind – notably the solar panels on the roof. And utility bills come in at under $100 a year.

 

In theory, they can be built anywhere – and Earthships have cropped up all over the world, from France to Honduras.

 

The disturbing thing is how eminently sensible this all seems. I’d come for a cheap, curious giggle at some weird-looking houses. But unconventional doesn’t necessarily mean stupid. Particularly in areas with plenty of sunshine, this is a practical way of building and running affordable housing. It might not look like anyone’s dream home, but sometimes dreams have to be tempered down for the real world. Strip away the hippy feel, and that’s where these odd-looking homes are grounded.

 

by David Whitley

  

   

You can get the USA included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

In praise of the back roads

 

David Whitley goes the long way round in New Mexico, and is very glad that he did so

 

What on earth is that? We’ve come through the high pine forest, careering around curving roads that look down into deep gullies. It’s one of those roads that’s an undisputed joy to drive along, yet suddenly it changes. After a descent, the horizon gets all big – but with something rather weird blocking the way.

 

They look like rolling sand dunes, but seem oddly crusted – as if the sand has been baked and hardened. As far as I can work out, they’re not sandstone, and they’re not your usual rock formations either. They’re, well, a field of lightly toasted yellow hills.

 

This is the sort of thing you get when you go the long way. When there are two routes, and one might take an hour or so longer than the boring, obvious one, it’s almost always better to take the fun option.

 

It’s a theory that proves itself again and again as we travel through New Mexico. Detour one from Santa Fe to Albuquerque loops past a giant, green, volcanic caldera, then rusty, red rock monuments that feel like they’ve come from central Australia.

 

Detour two heads through turquoise country, and Cerrillos, a town that looks so old-fashioned Wild West that westerns are still shot there. It also has an unfathomably weird Turquoise Mining Museum, which is less a museum and more a collection of junk that the owners couldn’t bear to throw out. Dozens of old poison bottles, rattlesnake skulls and bison horns leave little space for the undoubted highlight – a wall full of different types of barbed wire.

 

Shortly after comes Madrid, one of those delightful little hippy villages that only hangs out on back roads. It’s all bright paint, ramshackle wooden buildings and tie-dye. A sign in the café says: “In 1897 nothing happened here”. And no-one seems to mind – it’s an old mining town that artists moved into back in the 1970s because housing was cheap. They’ve stayed and it’s now the sort of place that bikers come miles out of their way for in order to get a brownie and a smoothie.

 

But it’s not the stops that count so much as the journey. It’s all about doing something because you can rather than because you have to, and that changes the mindset. Whimsy and silliness creep in, time stops feeling so restrictive.

 

The final detour comes on the way to Tucson. It turns a four hour drive into a five-and-a-half hour drive, but provides us with the most astonishing scenery we’ve seen in a state that’s pretty much 100% astonishing scenery.  Blackened stumps of recently burned trees sprinkle the backdrop as we climb high over the continental divide, mountain range after mountain range lining up in waves in the distance. We start adding to the drive time: there are going to be plenty of photo stops.

 

Eventually the road ends up in Silver City, an unexpectedly lovely university town that has preserved its pioneer-style buildings and turned many of them into galleries, cafés and pubs. We plonk down in a gelato bar, and get chatting to the owners. They’re from Baltimore originally, but after a few visits, Silver City got under their skin and they decided to move. What they’ve created is something more than an ice cream shop, however. People are sat around playing board games and one part of the room can be sectioned off for community meetings. It’s important to be sociable, that’s the message. And it’s one that fizzles through the town that has fallen firmly on the creative side of New Mexico’s arts vs military divide.

 

A short refreshment break turns into something more – a glimpse of a town’s heart. We wander for an hour or so, increasingly charmed and less concerned about getting to Tucson for any particular time. The back roads, again, have worked a curious magic.

by David Whitley

  

Roswell: Why the flying saucers never returned

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David Whitley heads to Roswell in New Mexico – site of the most infamous ‘alien landing’ – to find that the truth is much darker than he initially imagined


The giant inflatable alien outside the McDonalds on the way in doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Roswell has one major gimmick, and that the odd business milks it is no great shocker.

In fact, what’s most unexpected is that the whole little green man connection is underplayed. A few shops in the starkly empty downtown area sell any UFO-related guff they can get away with, the odd streetlight has been made to look like an alien head, and that’s just about it.

Well, apart from the International UFO Museum, anyway. The curators here clearly believe that the truth is out there, and have collected shedloads of testimonies about Roswell’s most notorious moment in 1947. That was when, according to the military, a weather balloon crashed.

Conspiracy theorists don’t believe that, of course. And they’re right not to, as it’s clearly a preposterous cover story for something else. The museum sets out the case for it being an alien craft that crash-landed – and plenty of witnesses (some rather reluctant and on their deathbed) attest to cover-ups, the silencing of key protagonists and sightings of non-human bodies.

The museum does its case no favours with amateurish presentation and an overly adamant belief in its case, but a couple of things stand out. The Roswell incident happened within a couple of weeks of the modern era’s first UFO sighting – in Idaho. A few more had followed, getting excitable coverage across the US media.

This suggests one of two things – firstly, that a lot of aliens were taking a look at Earth during that period or, secondly, that it was a new fad that excitable people were all too happy to get wrapped up in. The sort of hysteria, of course, that makes people see what they want to see.

The other interesting thing is the massive military presence around Roswell – air force bases, missile testing ranges, you name it. On the way in, stealth bombers are spotted racing across the sky. It doesn’t take too big a leap of faith to think that it’s not aliens that were being covered up, but some rather unsavoury and potentially embarrassing experiments.

 



It turns out that aliens aren’t the scariest thing about Roswell, however. The horror lies not in recovered bodies, but the ones moving around almost exclusively in Chevy Silverados. If ever there was a place to encapsulate the ugly side of modern America, this regional hub in south-western New Mexico is it.

It’s a world where nobody walks, and everyone drives a vehicle that’s way bigger than necessary. It’s a place where every sign is recognisable – Denny’s, Applebee’s, Wendy’s – and any hint of independent, non-franchised thought has been stripped out. The Walmart is gargantuan, its car park even more so. And everyone shops there.

US flags are everywhere, unquestioningly worshipped in a way that would be laughed at if it was North Korea. And the military can do no wrong – just about every business boasts of its military discounts, while bumper stickers alternate between support our troops and “proud veteran” sloganeering.

It’s a city that’s dead behind the eyes, and quite happy to be that way. One that any teenager with a brain and ounce of creative energy will be desperate to escape. The more pliant will have it drummed into them that there’s no other way and stay there forever, happy in their air-conditioned drone world.

The terror is not that this exists, but that it’s not a one-off. Roswell is replicated numerous times across the US, making identikit British small towns look positively utopian.

If the aliens did visit, it’s no surprise that they didn’t come back.

by David Whitley

  

 

You can get the USA included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW