I was sitting in an airport in Orlando, not long after publishing a post predicting how hard it was going to be to leave the unforgettable people and the crazy times I’d known and had in Bogota. I was sweating in jeans, a remnant of Bogota’s pre-dawn chill unsuited to Florida in summer, let alone the heatwave that was baking my destination, New York City. I’d left a certain Señorita abandoned in the departures hall – she’d insisted on coming despite my reluctance for an airport goodbye, and as predicted I’d been craning my neck for the first hour of the journey, desperately trying to picture what those Colombian landscapes sliding by below looked like from the ground. Now, I was surrounded by sunburnt gringos lugging Disney World shopping bags and passengers for a flight to Montego Bay being told that “Ladies and gentlemen, Jamaica is a sovereign country – it is not part of the United States – and as such you need a valid passport as well as a visa for us to let you on the plane”. People seemed genuinely surprised.
Ostensibly I’d sent myself home via the United States to visit an uncle, aunt and cousins I hadn’t seen in ten years, and I was genuinely excited to catch up. But deep down there was also the desire to dilute the shock and depression of coming home with a couple of weeks’ transition in what I thought would be a semi-familiar culture. The thing is, as much as Australians like to complain about how “americanised” we’re becoming, the United States is just as strange and foreign as anywhere I’ve been in western Europe. Everyone likes to think they know everything about it because they’ve grown up watching it’s movies and television and listening to it’s music but really, you have no idea until you’ve been there. And New York City is like a different country again, like Amsterdam is to the rest of the Netherlands. With only three days in a city I felt I could spend years in, most of my time was spent simply wandering around.
Sometimes you are reminded that you are, after all, in the United States:
Dolphins Rape People!
The new World Trade Centre. A lot of people died here, and a whole lot more would die on the other side of the world because because of what happened here. Sobering.
Last time I went to the States, I mentioned how jarring it was to suddenly be in a multicultural country again after months in monocultural Colombia, which specialises in exporting – rather than importing – immigrants. I watched these Chinese men help a mate who’d pulled a crab out of the East River just up from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Crossing the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn.
Like most famous monuments, the Empire State Building is an incredible sight, despite having seen it countless times on film. A Nigerian dude who befriended me in the line to go up insisted on buying me an “I (heart) NY” shirt once we got back down. I still have it, and I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with it.
View from the Empire State Building
From the Empire State Building I spotted the United Nations and thought “Oh that’s right, that’s here too”.
A temple to good intentions and humankind’s fallibility.
As close as I got to Lady Liberty.
Through some friends of friends I found out about a place called 5 Pointz, which is something like an artistic collective that’s sprung up around a semi-abandoned warehouse in Queens. There’s plenty of graffiti, break dancing and odd galleries. One such gallery contained a room full of paintings of vaginas, and in the centre sat a topless woman with a mask over her face, which was attached to a telephone. If you sat in front of her and picked up the phone, you got the audio from what I guessed was a porno film. The whole thing felt like it was trying too hard to shock, and just felt vulgar. Surely artists in one of the world’s most creative cities can come up with something better than that?
“You been smoking that weed man? You smoke some herb before you paint?”
I remember being 15 on a Greyhound bus and some English traveller telling me New York is weird because no matter where you go, you feel like you’ve already been there. Being in Central Park felt like I was in a cheesy romantic comedy. Except I couldn’t find the girl and therefore missed out on kissing her in the rain.
A night out with a friend of a friend (cheers Dominik!) in Jackson Heights aka ‘Little Colombia’ was another showcase of the city’s incredible diversity. At one point we walked too far up the main drag and ended up in the middle of a Tibetan wedding. In a bar watching music from Colombia’s Pacific coast we met Sergio, a Mexican graffiti artist from Los Angeles who also happened to be a Crip (“If you do crime in L.A., you have to be in a gang. Graffiti is crime, so I’m a crip”). I asked him if he was one of those idiots who tags every blank surface in the city and when he answered “yes” I asked what the hell does someone get out of vandalism like that.
His reply was to offer a giant marker pen and ask “Want to find out?”
Hence I became “Q-Tip”, and now even have my very own endorsement from Sergio aka “Serge”, who at the very least has a bit more rep in the graffiti game than me.
We had drunk a lot of tequila by this point.
As we realised we should be getting back to the bar to avoid suspicion, I decided I needed to say something. This was, after all, my first and I suspect my last chance at etching myself into the very fabric of the city. “Just write whatever comes out,” was Sergio’s advice.
As we tottered back towards the bar, a few people were already passing this latest piece of “street art”. They no doubt glanced over to see what “Q-Tip” had to say, and were rewarded with nothing less than a proclamation that “You’re all a bunch of fuckwits”.
It needs to be stated here that we were in the borough of Queens, and there is a rapper whose music I enjoy immensely who comes from Queens, and who was called “Q-Tip” before I was even born. I would like to clarify to anyone from around Jackson Heights that the “Q-Tip” calling you a fuckwit is not the same Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest fame, but instead is a drunken Australian depressed and homesick for Colombia – where incidentally it is likely that you yourself might be from.
Things only went downhill from there.
I caught up with a friend I’d last seen in the Colombian Amazon, hung out at a Brazilian festival in Central Park (and discovered the band Planet Hemp – have a listen!) and got to see and hang out in a whole bunch of places I’d only ever heard about in rap verses. People looked at me crazy for going to a certain place in Brooklyn, but I’m pretty sure whatever ‘danger’ I might’ve been in was nothing on what you’ll find in Bogota.
On the bus north to visit family, listening to the wrong songs and rereading certain letters from certain people, it was still hurting to have left Colombia and have to face up to what people back home call “real life” (what does that even mean, anyway?). But New York took the edge off, and for that I thank it. I’ll be back.