Sunday, 11 November 2012

We Survived Sandy

(A little background on this piece. I am visiting the United States these days as a fellow of "Emerging Youth Leaders of Pakistan" program, initiated by the Atlantic Council, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This post is a recollection of memories gained in New York, our first destination.)
Times Square
Ad for Newsies
Maine Monument, Central Park
Library of Columbia University
Seinfeld Restaurant
Cathedral of St John
NY Skyline from Rockefeller Center
View of NY from Empire state building

We Survived Sandy

Do you Speak Arabic?” and “Are you wearing a [suicide] vest?” were two of the questions I was asked when I told people that I was from Pakistan. It is usually said that you take some part of your country with you wherever you go and the first thing you do in another country is to confront their stereotype about you. Being in New York, that too during one of the worst storms in the history of the city, was a great experience to have. The first thing I noticed as soon as we reached JFK Airport was the large number of visitors, mostly from Eastern Europe, who were waiting to go through Immigration. I have heard nasty/creepy stories about Immigration at U.S airports but what I got was quite non-descript. No cavity search, no long interrogations, no suspicious looks or change in attitude. It was a bit disconcerting as well to know that they didn’t deem me important/suspicious enough to at least do a full body scan.!! 

As soon as we slipped out of the airport, we faced a gush of strong chilly wind which accompanied us throughout our visit. We reached our hotel after forty minutes of travelling(or sleeping, in my case) and were welcomed there by Mr. Shuja Nawaz and Huma from the Atlantic Council. After depositing our luggage in our respective rooms, we got a chance to wander out in the streets of New York. During that detour, I discovered that Cart food is considered good in New York, which is totally contrary to what we(or at least my family and medical fraternity in general) think about cart food in Pakistan. We got Shawarmas from “The Halal Guys” and later had a walk up the avenue to visit Times Square.

After our first visit of Times Square, we got addicted to it and we visited Times Square at least once daily. We got pictured on the camera feed present there, ventured up the red steps, got loads of pictures and what not.

In the preceding days, we were largely confined to our hotel due to the “Franken-Storm” named Sandy. We had two intellectually engaging sessions with Mr. Shuja Nawaz and I got to meet Prof Manan Ahmad at Columbia University. It was during the meeting with Mr. Manan that I realized where I was sitting at that time. It was the “Seinfeld” restaurant, the exterior of which was showed in almost every episode of my favorite television comedy show. It did not have the same interior design but it was nonetheless a great feeling for a die-hard Seinfeld fan to be at that particular Diner. We also got to visit Columbia University and had lunch at a nearby Japanese Restaurant. I still don’t remember what I ate that day(I was clueless while eating as well).

During the visit to Columbia, we went to witness Cathedral of St. John the divine, which is the 4th largest Christian church in the world and probably one of the biggest Gothic churches in the world. It had an exquisite exterior and I don’t think I have ever seen a building that grand and beautiful in my entire life. We encounter a shady(albeit Silver-Tongued) character there who, apart from detailing the history of the church and its reconstruction, also pestered us with Conspiracy theories and how different “signs” had already appeared on the walls of the church forecasting the future.

Being in New York City during Sandy was both a nightmare and an opportunity to witness emergency management in a “developed” country by ourselves. Early Warnings were issued and the local government responded to the storm as well as they could. A lot of difficulties had to be faced, including power shutdowns and absence of the Subway system, which practically paralyzed the city. Many of our plans had to be shelved because of these problems but we still managed to walk around the city, as much as we could. It was a unique opportunity for us to have a firsthand experience of how a “Developed Country” responds to national emergencies and disasters. We have seen what happened in our own country in the wake of Earthquake in 2005 and Floods in 2010 and 2011. Due to effective management and early warnings, the impact of the storm was reduced and less than a hundred people lost their lives due to the storm, which does not reflect accurately the gravity of the situation. 

While we were busy confronting our own stereotypes, we also discovered how wrong so many people have been about New Yorkers. It is usually said that New Yorkers are arrogant, detached and apathetic. I confess that one week is too soon to reach any conclusion but at least for this much duration, we(or at least I) found New Yorkers to be none of the above. I had previously thought that taking so many pictures and getting people to take pictures of us or with them would be at least a bit annoying for most people, but No sir, it was not the case. We got pictures with Cops in Times Square at 11 p.m., with paramedics on Broadway at 5 in the morning and asked a florist at 6 a.m. to take a picture of our group. None of those people even displayed a smirk. A taxi driver once refused to charge some of the fellows because he was a Pakistani while a Rickshaw driver gave us good enough discount on the ride. My beard was also supposed to be a problem for me but it never was, not at the immigration, not in the city, not in any of the offices that we went. 

It is also frequently said by travelers that a city can only be truly explored if you walk through it. I have done this experiment previously and have fallen in love with parts of Lahore because of this exercise. In New York, all we did was walking. We were fortunate that our hotel was located near so many memorable places and we got the chance to explore a lot just by walking. On a personal note, I am not a big fan of pets but the amount of cute dogs I saw on the streets of Manhattan reduced some of the strong feelings I had about this issue. Initially there was some problem with food, as after breakfast we had so many options but their “Halal-ness” was not verified so we were reluctant to experiment. I am already a vegetarian so it was not a big gastronomic shock for me but for some of our fellows, it was a very difficult time. I had Japanese food for the first time which I liked, not so much the American staple diets. 

United States is supposed to be the Land of Free so the first thing that I did upon reaching my hotel was to use YouTube, which has been blocked in Pakistan for the last few weeks.
My mind couldn't stop comparisons when I saw different things in the streets of New York. Cart Food, which is shunned by most well-off Pakistanis, is considered good enough in New York. Tap Water can be used for drinking purposes, without a second thought about any water-associated illness. Thank Yous and Sorrys are much more common. No one gives you a second look, whatever your skin color or dress might be. People get out of the way if you want to get pictures of a particular place. Zebra crossings actually work and vehicles would stop for pedestrians even if the pedestrians are violating the rules. No one cuts through the line, how long that might be. No whistling in theaters. People generally follow time for meetings and excuse politely as soon as the time finishes. These few little actions may not be thought of much by people in the U.S because they have grown accustomed to them but for folks from the "developing world" (thats a misnomer), they are fascinating.   

We visited a grassroots organization working for development of under-privileged South Asian children, named SAYA (South Asia Youth Action). It was heartening to witness active community participation in helping the community itself. We also visited an office of the United Nations Organization (UNO), where we met the Chief Knowledge management office of the UN. Later that day, we visited the Rockefeller Centre and Grand Central Station, both of which are among favorite tourist destinations.

One fine morning, we decided to visit Downtown area and ended up in Greenwich Village. To our utter amazement, there was no electricity in the area, reminding us of Pakistan. We even saw a utility store which was being run under the light of a solitary candle. Most of the shops were closed and streets were generally deserted. We saw a statue of Mr. Gandhi in the Greenwich area. It was followed by a spur of the moment decision to visit the Empire State Building which was nearby. I and another fellow were among the first batch of visitors to the Empire State building that day (tours start from 8 a.m. onwards). It was an out of the world experience to be standing on top of Empire State and finding the city of New York under our feet. It was really cold up there as well but the joy and excitement were overwhelming. It was a proper “Empire State of Mind”.

We visited the offices of New York Times, one of the most widely read newspapers in the world, on 2nd November, 2012. For an aspiring journalist such as myself, it was akin to visiting Heaven. The one thing that caught my eye apart from the exquisite interior design was the amount of books present on each of the staff's workstation. Despite being a bookworm myself (6 half/quarter-read books lying on my own side table), I was amazed. I don't know many journalists or press people in Pakistan who read such a huge amount of books (a few of them do, but they are exceptions not the rule). Douglas Schorzman, Foreign News Editor of NYT talked to us about various issues regarding NY Times. He was joined for sometime by Susan Chira, assistant managing editor for news of The New York Times. Mr. Douglas was eloquent in answering queries of inquisitive youth leaders from Pakistan and provided detailed answers. He also took us on a short tour of the News Offices. We were able to appreciate the “Open Culture” at New York Times which represents transparency on part of the Newspaper. 

To conclude our visit of New York, we got a chance to watch a Broadway Show. Two groups were formed, one of which opted for watching “The Lion King” while the other, including myself, opted for watching “Newsies”. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. No wonder the play won the prestigious Tony Award for best play. Performance of the actors was so good that one of my companions wondered if it were a 3D movie? I have seen and acted in semi-professional theater in Pakistan and have watched some good theater performances but Broadway was a different galaxy altogether. It was surreal, magical, and inexplicable, beyond the reach of words. It was the perfect ending to our Topsy-turvy tour of New York, a cherry on the top.