Stop number two immediately following the very friendly, if slightly sleepy, Canada, was to be the first of our two stints in the US of A, and one of the tallest cities in the world, New York.
To get there, however, first required a somewhat marathon 13 hour train journey from Toronto, across the border and all through upstate New York. At this point, we have to mention the border crossing.... now granted, security these days is fairly tight going in and out of the states, but the first customs officer to board our train was possibly one of the scariest people either of us have ever come across... ever. Upon boarding, he immediately proceeded to launch into a full on interrogation of an aged latino woman, with questions along the line of "You've been living in New York since 1997, whaddya mean you don't speak English?!", before rampaging up and down the carridge terrifying the other passengers. We were somewhat more fortuitous however, and ended up being questioned by a jolly old red faced fellow, who seemed positively chuffed that we'd been to the states before and was more than helpful to us.
Once the border had been crossed (although not before scary customs man hollered past us to someone sitting at the back of the train "Come on lady, i told you to get your bags!"), we began to get our first tastes of the unique slant many Americans have on life. Experience number one came from the son of the non-english speaking latino woman who, as soon as customs had left the train, began to rap very loudly to himself, pausing between "Yo' mamas" and "fight the machines" to wallop his unruly younger brother for upsetting his "flow". A few minutes of this began to grate on our nerves, and Vickie came up with the bright suggestion of moving to a virtually empty carridge elsewhere on the train... problem solved!
Or so we thought. No sooner had we left Buffalo, when a portly woman who had clearly overheard us talking to each other, wandered over to strike up a conversation.
"Excuse me" she said, "I couldn't help but notice your accents.... are you English?". Dunc wanted to respond at this juncture with "No, we're from the third moon of Saturn actually", but thought better of it and smiled politely instead. Undetered, she then proceeded to confirm just about every American stereotype when she mentioned that "My sons fathers name is Weatherby", before leaning forward with the type of expectant look you tend to find on puppies when its time for walkies. Apparently "There is a Weatherby house" somewhere in England, which was clearly the line this English chap had used to impregnate her in the first place. We decided that the path of least resistance was the best one to take, and looked at each other before simultaneously voicing "Oh yes, we've heard of that". Suitably happy, she retired once more to her seat. Later on in the journey, we noticed that she had accosted a poor fellow who had inadvertantly sat next to her, and was talking his ears off whilst he desperately feigned unconsciousness in a failed bid to avoid her attentions.
Eventually, we arrived in New York City but spirits were flagging after such a mammoth train ride and the subway looked just too confusing, so we ventured outside and flagged down a taxi. Within 30 seconds we were both wide awake again as the driver took us on an electrifying white-knuckle ride of death through the city streets, beeping his horn, cutting up cyclists and merrily chattering away to himself in arabic. This hair-raising journey into Spanish Harlem incorporated a Starsky and Hutch style u-turn when he realised we were on the wrong side of town, and backing up a one way street when we couldn't find our address.
It must be said though, that the reason we couldn't find our address was because Dunc had it as being 10 doors further down than it actually was, so after driving around the block a couple of times, he decided to check the address once more. He then apologetically pointed out to the driver that we'd gone past it on more than one occasion. We pulled up to the guest house to some very vocal tutting from Vickie, and Dunc sheepishly collecting the bags from the boot.
Before we'd arrived at Virginia's Guest House on the south edge of Harlem, we had in our minds that we would be greeted by a rolly-polly and very vocal black woman straight out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, who would feed us on "Bacon n Grits", call us "Sugah" and jump up on chairs at the first sign of a mouse, before battering her cat down the street with a broom. We were somewhat surprised then, to be greeted by a gangsta-looking Puerto Rican chap called Hector who, resplendant in his multitude of "Bling", greeted us and showed us to our room, but not before barging into the wrong room and waking some poor unsuspecting resident up.
With that, we crashed out and awoke the next morning to find New York in unusually sombre mood. Our visit had coincided with the fourth anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, and there was a slightly subdued atmosphere about the place. This mood was probably not helped by both of us struggling with persistant colds, leading to much sniffling and sneezing as we crawled out of bed to explore the city.
First stop simply had to be FAO Schwarz. On our previous visit to the Big Apple, it had very disapointingly been closed for refurbishment, so we rushed through the front doors with gusto, keen to see what the new look store had to offer. 45 minutes later and Dunc was having to almost physically drag Vickie away from the store, after she had spied several very plush cuddly border collie puppy soft toys, and promptly picked them up and carried them around with her, pausing occasionally only to purr "they're so soft" and "I need to get one".
A quick trek down 5th avenue later, and we pulled up at the very impressive looking New York public library. Deciding against dashing down the stairs screaming in true Ghostbusters fashion, we wandered in. And promptly got lost. For such a huge building, the library was surprisingly devoid of anything, and it took us a good 20 minutes to find an Internet terminal. To our dismay, the terminals were for library members only. Fortunately, Dunc had a cunning plan, and soon enough was having his mug shot taken in order to become the proud owner of a New York Public Library card.
Being surrounded by all that educational material was proving a little too taxing, so we decided to saunter over to Central Park for a bit of a lie down. During the walk we noticed another curious thing about New Yorkers in that they seem to find particular pleasure in carrying their family pets in their handbags or similar transportation mechanism. We spotted no fewer than three dogs of varying sizes in bags, trollies and pushchairs. Muttering about how dogs that need carrying shouldn't be allowed, we pulled up a patch of grass in the park, and lounged in the baking 32 degree sun.
The following day, our exploration of downtown continued with a trip to the Monolithic Grand Central Station, and the neon saturated insanity that is Times Square. The crush of the assembled throngs of people was proving to be mildly tiresome in the heat so, after a relaxing Ice Cream at the brilliantly monikered "Tasti-d-lites", we headed once more to the park. This time however, our trip was made much more entertaining when we stumbled across a local softball game (the championship game as well as it turned out).
Softball. Now there's an intriguing past time. As far as we could make out it basically consisted of teams of grown men in varying stages of obesity, and seemingly all called "Johnny" or "Paulie", having to undertake tasks such as "Spotting the pitch", "Hustling the line drive" and "Checking on the curve". Essentially, it was a very shouty version of rounders using a grapefruit as a ball. We merrily watched several fascinating innings of this, all the while resisting the urge to scream "Rounder, rounder, rounder" whenever bat made contact with ball, but eventually, with the Irving club steak choppers beating the Frank street fruit bats 7-2 with a reverse RBI and 3 cheese loaded bases (or something), we thought enough was enough and made our exit.
All that hectic sporting action had taken its toll, so it was time for us to broaden our Scientific horizons with a trip to the American Natural History Museum. We were initially dismayed to realise that basic entry tickets were a hefty $14 each. Nontheless, we had travelled a long way across town and were not to be denied. After spending a couple of minutes sizing up the various security guards, Dunc angled straight toward the one who looked least interested in his job, and promptly breezed past, with an edgy looking Vickie in tow.
Feeling chuffed with ourselves that we had managed to aid Britains scientific balance of payments by not putting any money into Uncle Sams educational budget, we proceeded to check out a wealth of fact and information. We were stopped at one point by a curator who seemed intent on telling us all about the relative sizes of things in the universe. Dunc nodded blankly, and Vickie attempted to pay attention, but was still harbouring lingering concerns of us being collared by a hefty looking security guard asking to see our passes.
Eventually we found our way onto the top floor and the Dinosaur exhibits. By this point, Dunc was in small child heaven, tearfully remembering all of those dinos he used to love as a boy. This fond trip down memory lane was blunted slightly by the fact that he seemed unable to prounounce multi-syllabic names that he would have had no problems with over 20 years ago. He was now distraught to find himself tripping over more pronounciations than Big Ron Atinkson commentating on a Slovakia vs Kazakhstan football match.
We were getting the hang of how to be thrifty in New York when the following day, we headed down to the Staten Island Ferry for a free trip across the bay instead of stumping up over $30 for a liberty island ferry trip to see what is, in our humble opinions, one of the more overrated landmarks around, the Statue of Liberty. Lets face it, she's pretty much a brooding French chick stood in the harbour. She doesnt dance or anything.
Feeling slightly smug, we were then dragged back to reality during a trip to Macys later that afternoon. We had spent no less than 2 hours fighting our way through the downtown crowds to try and get a hat each and, thoroughly dispirited, we tried the self styled "Biggest store in the world", thinking that we would have to have success there.
Not a bit of it as it turns out. For the biggest store in the world, you'd think they would have some sort of signposting. But no, apparently its much funnier to watch on the security cameras as increasingly red faced and frustrated shoppers struggle with mono-syllabic and disinterested shop monkeys as they search for departments no less than 50 miles apart. This intense frustration eventually bubbled over when, in a fruitless search for the childrens sportswear department for a hat for Vickie, Dunc promptly flung his hat on the floor and blurted out a few obsentities before stalking out of the shop in a non-buying huff.
A meal in Times Square was needed to boost flagging spirits, and a certain grim satisfaction was gained by walking into the Olive Garden and going straight for that most American of meals, the "All you can eat" option. We sat at our table, preparing to take on the restaurants entire supply of fettucine with meat sauce, only to be thoroughly defeated by the first plateful the waiter brought to us, despite the fact that two very slender girls behind us seemed to be working their way through the menu with much greater gusto... oh the shame!
Four exciting and action-packed days in New York had proved to be ample for Dunc and Vickie. With the next stop being Venezuela, they were most definitely looking forward to a change in culture and scenery.