Hoedspruit

The next day we visited the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre which specialises in the research and rehabilitation of cheetahs, wild dogs and vultures. A guide took us around the different enclosures where we were only two metres away from the animals.
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We were really lucky and had arrived on feeding day where each animal was given a huge hunk of meat to gnaw on. Watching the dogs fight over their piece was intriguing, they don’t make the growls and barks you would think but more like high pitched squeals.

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The part I enjoyed the least was the visit to the ‘Vulture Restaurant’. All the bones left over by the mammals are tossed into a pit where the vultures pick on the remains. It was like something out of a horror movie only you could unfortunately smell it. It was rancid. That is all I can say as even dwelling on it I can feel it rising up in the back of my throat. *Shudders*

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Enough of that. Next…on to Kruger National Park.

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Afrique du Sud

For the first time since being in Congo and for my first holiday of 2015 I decided to stay in Africa and visit South Africa. Being one of the few countries that you can take a direct (short) flight to from Kinshasa it was refreshing to step off the plane in four hours and be on holiday instead of the usual 15 hour trip out of the continent.

My boyfriend and I had decided to go on safari, something I had not done for years so I couldn’t wait. We hired a car from Johannesburg airport (I would totally recommend the company Woodford if anyone is looking for car hire) and drove towards Kruger National Park.

We took what they call the Panoramic route and it certainly held up its name. The scenery was incredible and we stopped a number of times along the way to snap some photos.

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Picture postcard!

We stopped off for a couple of nights just outside the park in a sleepy town called Graskop which boast a number of amazing viewpoints and natural sites to explores. (Would also definitely recommend our guesthouse Daan’s Place, lovely host although he is not called Daan). There’s not much going on in Graskop itself, it was kind of like stepping back in time into the Wild West with its dusty streets with only a handful of shops and cafes and cows wandering freely. But nearby is a trail which led us past a number of amazing views:

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God’s Window

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Berlin Falls

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Lisbon Falls

Here we went off the tourist path and trekked down into the canyon and swam in the pool – a fantastic experience. If you look closely you can see my boyfriend’s head poking out of the water!

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Bourke’s Luck Potholes

These potholes were named after a gold digger, Tom Burke, who despite correctly predicting that large gold deposits would be found in the area, did not actually find any himself.

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The climax was the highest peak overlooking the three Rondawels towering over the Blyde River Canyon. The word ‘Rondawel’ refers to a round hut-like dwelling (usually with a thatched roof). These peaks were apparently named after the three most troublesome wives of Chief Maripi Mashile – they are (from left to right) Magabolle, Mogoladikwe and Maseroto.

Village Ibi

Despite having driven through many villages during my time in Congo I have never actually visited one so when my Canadian friend offered me the chance to join her on a trip to visit a project that had previously been funded by the Canadian embassy where she works I jumped at the chance.

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The village was a good two hour drive outside of the capital Kinshasa and once we reached it, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be the mud huts and camp fires type of village I had in my head. It was actually a plantation where a slight eccentric Belgian professor had set up what he termed a ‘business incubator’ where he invited agricultural students to live in the village for two years and earn the necessary skills to start up their own business.

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The professor had lived in the village since 2006

The plantation was huge – 20km x 10km – and to me looked like a forest of acacia trees. The professor explained that the main crop grown there was cassava (one of the favourite foods of the Congolese) but in between the rows of cassava seedlings they would plant rows of acacia trees which enriched the soil, helping the cassava pants to grow. Ingenious.

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The professor took us on a tour of the farm where we met some students who seemed to be learning a host of skills. Some were looking after chickens and ducks, others growing some kind of tea leaves, others keeping bees for honey.

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A woman peeling cassava

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Apparently if you drink one cup of this tea every day you will stay young!

After a picnic lunch where they brought out fried cassava which we the dipped in the local honey (yummy!), we were each given the chance to plant our own acacia tree. This felt a little bit like a school trip but actually getting down in the dirt to shift the soil for my seedling was great. I now have a part of me growing in Congo!

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Before

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After – tiny but there!

Le match

What a start to 2015. On my return to Congo after Christmas I was just getting over the holiday blues then I picked up a nasty stomach bug and was out for a week, then having recovered the country went into chaos with protests about the potential change to the constitution so we had to stay at home for a few days for security reasons. A couple of days working from home might have been quite nice but then the government switched the internet off and has only just returned full access two weeks later. I realised just how much I rely on the internet to keep in touch with friends in Congo and the outside world, so without this it has been a bizarre time. SMS messaging also got cut so the only way we have been able to communicate has been by telephone – harking back to the early 90s with a dash of North Korea thrown in. Hence why I’m a little late with the blog this year.

However after all the gloom and doom, something wonderful happened in Congo. The national football team got into the semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations. I myself am not really a football fan but I watched this match as I knew the atmosphere was going to be good. Ironically it was Congo v Congo – i.e. DR Congo vs Congo Brazzaville over the other side of the river so tensions were high. Amazingly DR Congo pulled through and won 4-2. Finally some good news in this country!

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The reaction of the public was fantastic. On leaving the bar in our car we could only move at 5mph as there were hundreds of people walking along the road, singing and waving with Congolese flags draped around them like skirts, stickers of the flag stuck on their cheeks, foreheads and bodies. I think it went on most of the night.

My boyfriend captured the streets on video so you can see what an atmosphere we were in.

Sadly the glory was not to last. DR Congo lost its semi-final match against Ivory Coast. Each team was equally matched but Ivory Coast had the upper hand throughout and won 3-1. DR Congo did pull through however in a third-place play-off with Equatorial Guinea and won 4-2 – a bronze in the cup – hoorah!

And now all the excitement is over the government has had to reinstate the full internet again…Facebook, Twitter, The Guardian, BBC Good Food (my lifelines) are back!

Observations sur le Congo

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  • You can buy anything on the street

I have witnessed men and women selling everything from poster of past African presidents to car doors to puppies – whatever the customer wants!

  • Mayonnaise goes with everything

No meal in Congo is complete without mayonnaise. And that is that.

  • You can always create a new lane of traffic

Coming home the other day I drove up to three lines of traffic all turning left. This was on a two lane road.

  • Black tea

Nobody here drinks milk in their tea and my colleagues in the office find it very strange that I have milk.

  • Noses

We have huge noses in comparison to Congolese people; something I never thought about until sitting in a bar with my boyfriend’s parents who were here on a visit, a lady grabbed hold of my boyfriend’s mother’s nose and laughed about how it long it was!

  • Heat

Wet season is back and it’s really hot, around 35 degrees at least each day. I thought I’d acclimatised to it, but am still sweltering. Meanwhile Congolese women walk around in jeans and stiletto heels, wondering why I can only wear cotton and linen.

  • Air freshener

For ages I wondered why the cleaner in my office insisted on spraying this horrible air freshener everywhere, until I discovered it wasn’t air freshener, but ant killer! It has a random fruity flavour.

  • Internet

We have finally found an internet provider that allows us to watch YouTube – hallelujah!

  • Caterpillars

Caterpillars are a delicacy here and can cost $1 each. You can eat them on their own, as an accompaniment as you would rice or in a stew. I tried them for the first time last weekend and they actually weren’t that bad at all! Just kinda chewy…

Une année au Congo

Last month I celebrated my one year anniversary in the Congo. It’s crazy to think that this time last year I was the newbie in the expat community, trying to figure out the ins and out of Congo life, making new friends and attempting to find a job. At the time everything was new and exciting, but looking back it wasn’t exactly how I had imagined my life in Congo to be. Before arriving I was so busy thinking about settling into a new country where I knew little about the local culture and spoke even less of the official language, I failed to realise that actually most of my time would be spent with people of my own background. In Kinshasa, expats who come to live in Congo do of course integrate into the wider community as much as they can, but due to the extreme difference between our lifestyle expectations and most local residents, you end up living on the peripheries in an expat bubble.

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In retrospect I think because half my daily interactions were with people I could already easily relate to, such as embassy workers, NGO staff and other expats living in the city, I settled in very quickly. Simultaneously however I was also trying to make Congolese friends, learn more about the norms of the culture and experience some of the ‘real’ Congo. Surprisingly this has not always been as easy as you might think when you live in the expat quarter of the city and are surrounded by French patisseries, Range Rovers and 4 star hotels. I found that Congo is a bizarre dual world where you live in a modern, guarded compound with access to westernised supermarkets, good restaurants and bars alongside people who survive on $1 a day.

I came across this article on the BBC website recently about spouses who follow their partners to jobs abroad and take up a new lifestyle: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20141110-the-reluctant-expat-spouse

For me it was an interesting insight into other people’s experiences, although I cannot agree with the headline, I like to travel! The article outlines the difficulties of understanding and functioning in a new culture, which I can definitely relate to, but on hearing that a lot of people get little support and find it hard to make friends in a new community, I feel extremely lucky that my boyfriend was placed in Kinshasa.

Most people in Congo are here for development reasons and come across for short periods to work on aid projects, so there is always a ready crowd eager to socialise and integrate. But for private sector workers, I imagine it is much harder to find like-minded individuals, particularly if you are moving to a huge city like Shanghai.

The article describes a training course that the family moving to China went on in order to learn more about the culture. For me that seems ridiculous, how can someone describe a place to you that you have never had any experience of? I was lucky in that I received a familiarisation trip with my boyfriend to Congo a few months before his start date; it was a 5-day trip that allowed us to see with our own eyes the place that we would be living in for the next year. That for me was invaluable, as even after being here a year I find it difficult to explain to someone who has never been to Africa what life is truly like here.

Once I arrived I had support from the embassy where my boyfriend works and was introduced to a number of really welcoming, helpful people which as I said made settling in a lot easier. Having points of reference and people to ask advice about where to go for the best bread or how to get to the river, is exactly what you need when starting up somewhere new in any country. What they couldn’t always explain was the culture differences however. That was just something I had to learn myself and could only do so by getting out on my own and experiencing it. For example, the lack of any rules on the road, the interchangeable currency rate between US dollars and Congolese francs and how to haggle for vegetables on the street. These were a few things I had never experienced before and took a while to get used to. But eventually of course they became the norm. I have realised that in Congo, having patience and being willing to take things at a slower pace than you are used to certainly help.

I previously felt that it was my lack of French that hindered my full integration into Congolese society and kept me on the boundaries in my expat community. Living in a country where their language is your second, you miss certain idioms, subtleties and behaviours that are just natural to the residents. For Congolese people, French is also their second language, so they’re more forgiving than the French when I get my masculine and feminine nouns wrong, but they are still a few years ahead of me, so I cannot mix as freely as I would wish.

Saying this, even if my French was better, I think I’d still choose to go to the nice Italian restaurant on a Friday night with my fellow Anglophone expats instead of a more Congolese restaurant in an attempt to meet locals. Despite enjoying living in Congo, I still depend on my home comforts and links back to a westernised life, remaining in touch with home news and family and friends. Perhaps it’s because I know it is not forever that for me keeping my ‘norms’ alive is vital. On the other hand, I ‘.come to Congo and have endeavoured to take part in as much as I can that is Congolese. I think us spouses have it quite good here, a chance of something new, for a short period, yet still a taste of home if we want it. Congo has become my home not because I have brought my westernised ways here or even because I have fully understood the culture, but it is because of the friends I have made here – Africans, Americans, Europeans – for ultimately where your friends are is where your home is.

For anyone thinking of moving abroad for the first time with their partner, I definitely endorse the recommendations on the BBC website:

  1. Learn the language.
  2. Connect with your local expat community.
  3. Ask your partner’s company to provide pre-and post-relocation counselling. Learn to manage your expectations in advance of arrival. Most foreign countries aren’t what you expect.
  4. To help you meet locals, attend your partner’s company events.
  5. If you have children, get more involved with parent groups at their school.

Other advice I can offer is not to worry about feeling settled too soon, everyone has their own pace and you will be surrounded by people who have lived in the country for years who know exactly what they are doing, so don’t follow them. Also don’t worry about making mistakes – it’s something everyone does and without making some you won’t learn and progress. And make sure you find opportunities to laugh a lot and actually enjoy the experience for what it is.

World Press Photo competition

Each year, the World Press Photo foundation organises a competition to find the year’s top photos by photojournalists across the globe. Apparently there were nearly 100,000 entries this year from 132 countries. The contest is judged by leading experts in visual journalism who represent various aspects of the profession. The exhibition of winning photos is shown in over a hundred from Bangkok to Copenhagen.

This year one of the places chosen for the site was (somewhat surprisingly to me) the city of Kinshasa in the DRC. The exhibition was held at the Radio Tower, a site usually off bounds to members of the public, but opened up especially for this occasion. Supported by the Dutch embassy the free exhibition ran for four weeks.

I went along one evening a couple of weeks ago just before the sun set and getting up close to the tower was an impressive sight. The enormous structure is quite a feat of architecture (in comparison to its surroundings) and it was great to get a peek at this old part of Kinshasa.

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The exhibits were laid out in the middle of the tower around the circular foundations, making it a very quirky space. There was such a variety of photos amongst the collection. From humanitarian crises to major sports championships to incredible wildlife photography. I even recognised some famous faces amongst the portraits. There was also the Congolese version of the competition and its winners as well as a separate Congolese photography exhibition from the local museum showcasing some touching photos from colonial times and modern artists’ representations of the regime in place now.

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The winner of the World Press Photo competition was actually visually not a particularly striking photo but from the story behind it I could understand why the judges had selected it. It shows African migrants on the shore of Djibouti City in the Horn of Africa at night raising their phones in an attempt to catch an inexpensive signal from neighbouring Somalia — a tenuous link to relatives abroad. Djibouti is a common stop-off point for migrants in transit from such countries as Somalia, and Ethiopia, seeking a better life in Europe and the Middle East. In this era when communications technology has made our world a much smaller place, it felt really pertinent for African populations for whom mobile phones have opened up so much and are their only link to family living far away.

‘Signals’ by John Stanmeyer

Here are a few of my favourite photos from the exhibition:

‘Toxic Beauty’ by Kacper Kowalski

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‘Typhoon Haiyan’ by Chris McGrath

‘Chiwetel Ejifor’ by Nadav Kander

‘Bonobos – Our Unknown Cousins’ by Christian Ziegler

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A young Congolese boxer, one of the winners of the Congo Press Photo competition

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An artist’s representation of the story of those in power in the DRC from Patrice Lumumba to Joseph Kabila

Le 40e anniversaire de ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’

Most people were out celebrating Halloween last week, getting dressed up and heading out trick or treating, but I was in Congo, celebrating another anniversary, not quite as scary as hundreds of children high on sugar.

Last week marked the 40th anniversary of one of the most bizarre and famous boxing fights in the 20th century. In October 1974 boxing champions Muhammad Ali and George Foreman both came to what was at the time Zaire, to fight for the World Heavyweight Championship title.

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On Thursday night we were invited by the US embassy to watch a special screening of the 1996 documentary film ‘When we were Kings’ which tells the story of Ali’s time in Zaire. In 1974 Muhammed Ali was 32 years old and thought by many to be past his prime, whereas George Forman was ten years younger and the current Heavyweight Champion of the world. Both however were popular and famous boxers who were eager to fight each other. The promoter Don King wanted to make a name for himself and despite not having the ready cash, offered both fighters 5 million dollars to fight one another. When they accepted, King began the search for a backer and most bizarrely found one in Mobutu Sese Suko, the dictator of Zaire. The match was set to run in the capital Kinshasa with a build-up musical festival featuring America’s top African American performers, like James Brown and B.B. King.

The documentary is mostly shown from Ali’s perspective and you see him during his time in Congo, mixing with the locals to gain their support and turning them against the showy Foreman. The chant he copied off the Congolese was ‘Boma-ye’ which means ‘kill him’ in Lingala referring of course to Foreman. Ali seemed to feel at home in the Congo with his ‘brothers’, making grand promises to help alleviate poverty there. As a very charismatic and outgoing figure he seemed to easily win over the hearts of the Congolese.

What I didn’t realise was that the match took place at 4am in DR Congo in order that it could be broadcast in the USA at a reasonable time. Imagine going to watch a boxing match before dawn! And Mobutu, the funder and driver of the match, whose aim in bringing the match to Zaire was to promote the country as a developed African state, wasn’t even present there; they say because he was worried about his security. Yet the stadium itself was filled with hundreds of spectators, mostly all supporting Ali. On a darker note, in order to make the city a safe place during the fighters stay, Mobutu had rounded up 1,000 of the street criminals and held them under the stadium during the fight; he later executed 100 of them to make his point.

The fight itself lasted 8 rounds with Ali throwing unconventional ‘right-hand leads’ and Foreman using his sheer power to throw huge punches at Ali. Somehow Ali managed to outlast these ferocious hits and took Foreman to a knock out and was announced the winner.

After the showing we were given a special talk by the man who had been Ali’s Head Interpreter during his stay in Kinshasa. Amazingly the man, who went on to be Mobutu’s personal interpreter after this (not a job I think he enjoyed as much), now works for the US embassy! It was fascinating to hear his personal account of his time with Ali and how much everyone had respected him at the time. He told us that it had actually been pure chance that had landed him the job; he had happened to be walking pass the place where they were holding interviews for the job on his way home job and he turned out to be the best English speaker among the candidates.

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Interestingly the Congolese who were present at the talk and wanted to share their comments and ask the interpreter questions, did not seem as besotted by Ali as the last generation had been. Most of the comments kept drawing attention to the fact that Ali had not since visited Congo and those hospitals and services he had promised to provide to help the poor population had never appeared. I do not know if this is true but it was interesting to see this response to such a popular figure. People seemed to feel used and let down by the great man.

Now I was in the mood to see some real boxing, so on Friday night I went to the local boxing club. It was holding a commemorative tournament for the anniversary and so it was in Congo that I witnessed my first ever boxing match. Despite being a bit afraid of the violence I would see, once I was there and got over the initial sounds of those heavy punches I actually quite enjoyed it. Some of the heavyweight matches were really impressive, the level of fitness the boxers had was incredible. The last match went into 12 rounds!

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I can’t say it has inspired me to take up boxing myself, but it was definitely an experience I won’t forget and in a country that has so much negative history, it felt good to be a part of something positive here.

Brooklyn, NYC

brooklyn bridgeDuring our visit to NYC, we stayed in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with friends so had the chance to see the town through locals eyes which was great. I could easily write a whole blog about Williamsburg, there was so much to see and do there and just a good place to hang out in for a day.

For me it felt like Shoreditch in London, a more chilled, alternative part of the city with vintage shops, quirky people walking around, artisan cafes, Mexican food carts and juice shacks.

Connected by the famous Brooklyn Bridge as well as a couple of others, you are right on the water and have the most perfect view of Manhattan, right from the financial district all the way to Upper East Side.

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Everyone recommended taking a boat trip while we were in New York to marvel at the Statue of Liberty but we actually got the opportunity to do this without taking a touristy boat, but just by grabbing the ferry from Williamsburg over to Governors Island. You don’t get super close to the statue but you get a good view and it was great to see such an iconic landmark in the flesh.

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We went to Governors island to see an exhibition our friend was putting on in one of the old military barracks. Governors Island used to be a military base and Castle Williams, the circular defence structure is still there to be marvelled at.

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Quite accidentally we also stumbled upon the monthly jazz party they hold on the island where vintage lovers get dressed up and attend a 1920s style party complete with bands, swing dancing, old cars and homemade lemonade. It looked fun but I hear quite pricey.

vintage partyOne of my favourite parties we attended was Mister Sunday, a day party with house music which takes place between two industrial buildings. Who would have thought a barely used courtyard in the middle of an industrial complex could be turned into the perfect place for a party? There was even a pizza oven and sangria bar. And because it was a day party and it ended around 9pm, it had a nice vibe, I think at one point I even saw a dog on the dance floor!

mister sunday

The other great thing about Brooklyn is the restaurants. Within walking distance or a short bike ride you have such an array of cuisines and high quality restaurants, we didn’t know where to start! The New York institution of brunch can easily be satisfied here with great places like Five Leaves (where you need to put your name down an hour in advance) and Egg.

After a week in the Big Apple, I could definitely imagine myself living in its juicy core, there seemed to be nothing you can’t do there; but for now it was then end of a wonderful holiday and back to a very different way of life in the DRC…

 

New York, New York

Visiting New York from London is fairly intense, about a seven hour plane journey followed by the onslaught of all the traffic and buzz as you enter Manhattan. Travelling from Congo however is extreme…

A one hour drive to the airport, a 7 hour plane journey to Europe, a 10 hour plane trip to JFK and then a 45 minute cab journey to Brooklyn. The world really is a big place…but I knew the Big Apple was worth it!

Despite the distance, my boyfriend and I decided to visit our old housemates who had moved to New York from London when we moved to Congo.

After living in an African city for 10 months, arriving somewhere like New York was frankly a shock to the system. The gigantic skyscrapers that line the streets and the numerous advertisements and noises that hit you are non-existent in Kinshasa. In some ways New York is very much like London, where I am originally from, but everything is a lot bigger which means it’s even more to take in after a break for the western world.

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Despite my groaning about the travel, this was what I had been waiting for, a much-needed injection of shopping, culture and good cuisine and I couldn’t wait! Sadly on our first day there, the airline lost my boyfriend’s suitcase so we instantly had to head to the shops to get him clothes. Of course, this was not exactly a problem for me being a shopaholic!

Shopping on 5th avenue and in Soho was actually pretty similar to London, with mostly the same brands like Zara, Urban Outfitters and Topshop available on the high street. Brooklyn offered more interesting quirky shops, but I’ll get onto that later.

Passing through Time Square en route to a tech shop was a real shocker. I have never seen so many screens in one street. I almost got run over because I was so distracted by all the bright lights! Wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible my boyfriend and I ran down the stairs to the subway. As a born and bred Londoner I thought I would easier figure out the subway system in New York but not so, I still didn’t understand the express vs local trains and different letters on the same colour line, even after a week of using it! If anyone can explain this to me please help, I’m sure for New Yorkers it’s a piece of cake.

 

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One thing I definitely recommend for anyone visiting New York in the near future is the High Line. An old disused railway line running up and across the city was innovatively converted into a garden walkway recently and is now a pretty place to take a break from all the activity below with cafes, small markets places to sit and watch the world go by.

high line

For my fill of culture, I visited the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both interesting places even if you’re not that into art. Firstly the MoMA was full of all the usual modern prints, photography and instalments and some of the most famous Andy Warhol pieces. The garden in particular was a nice space to relax with some great sculptures.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art however was something I did not have long enough to tackle properly. You could easily spend a whole day there but as I only had a couple of hours I joined a Museum Highlights tour and saw some key pieces that took you right from the early Ancient Greek sculpture through Renaissance paintings, a replica of Louis XVI’s bedroom, Rembrandt and finally more modern American art. For me, an avid lover of European art, it was interesting to see how Americans view, lay out and talk about art.

Right next to the museum is Central Park, another must-do for New York and one that could take a whole day. We had a picnic by one of the lakes and wondered around picking out the statues and appealing spots. There were many locals in the park as well as tourists, walking their dogs (New Yorkers love their dogs) and having a break from work.

A more surprising bit of culture was Grand Central station. On entering the grand hall I felt like I was stepping back in time. It would not have shocked me if men had been standing around in bowler hats and walking sticks and women in corsets and bonnets. It was a nice slice of history in a mostly modern city.

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Before we came to NYC, everyone recommended going up the Empire State building or the Rockefeller to take in the view of the city but when we discovered it would cost us $60 and require a two-hour wait, we had a better idea. With so many skyscraper hotels in the city, why not find one with a rooftop bar where you can enjoy the view whilst sipping a refreshing beverage at the same time? So we went to the Hudson hotel at the south of the park and watched the sun set over the city whilst reclining in their pretty garden bar. A much better way to spend your dollars if you ask me.

To be continued….