Friday afternoon found me boarding a train out of New Jersey into the big city of New York. Taking a train turned out to be the cheapest, most practical route, since most of the bridges are not ridable, and the ferries are ridiculously expensive. I thought I was going to be able to stay with my friends Max and Rachel, but I didn’t get a hold of Max until Friday morning, and both were busy with work and unable to have me that night. So I stopped at the next library to get on the internet and frantically search for a couch to surf. After messaging a dozen people or so, I packed up to set out towards a train station, not really sure what I would do if no one could host me. Luckily, before I even left the library, I had a call and a confirmed place to stay in Brooklyn. I have only been to New York City once before, but that was spent as a tourist, seeing the sights: Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, walking through Soho and Central Park. I didn’t get a real feel for the city. Coming in on the train and biking through Manhattan and across to Brooklyn was a much better introduction to the city.
I came up out of Penn station in Manhattan not really knowing where I was and how to get to Brooklyn. Luckily there were some pedicab (bike taxi) drivers hanging out on the street waiting for rides. Having personal experience as a pedicab driver, I figured that was a good place to start for directions. The guy I asked, Pete, was incredibly friendly and helpful. We talked for a while about my trip and money and Buddhism. That was refreshing. I studied and was very turned on by Buddhism in college, with its message of compassion and interconnectivity of all beings and “middle path,” and Pete happens to be a practicing Buddhist. Also, I am reading a book by a Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, which has been a refreshing reminder of why I was so drawn to Buddhism before and why its ideas are very pertinent to my current situation. The book is called Cultivating the Mind of Love. Pete practices a different branch of Buddhism than Thich Nhat Hanh, but the basic ideas are all the same; the differences mainly lie in the form of practice. I left Penn Station with good direction, in more ways than one. And off I went, into the city streets.
Now biking on flat country roads is fantastic, with minimal traffic and beautiful natural scenery, and nothing beats soaring down a curvy mountain road at speeds over 30 or 40 miles per hour, but there is something about the rush of biking through a big city with heavy traffic that I absolutely love, that I miss at times. Whether in a bike lane or splitting traffic lanes packed with autos and buses, city riding is exciting. Even with 100 pounds of extra weight limiting my maneuverability, I had a blast making my way south through Manhattan and then across the Brooklyn bridge and through part of Brooklyn, including around Prospect park, with hoards of other cyclists and joggers and rollerskaters. I think one of the main differences for me is a matter of control. When I am biking down some state or US highway, with traffic zooming past at speeds in excess of 50mph, or even a rural country road with just two lanes and occasional passing cars and trucks, I really have to just keep my eyes focused to the front and have faith that those coming up from behind see me and have the competence and ability to not plow into me. It’s great for being able to focus on the scenery. In the city, among the traffic and confusion, it becomes more of a game or a challenge, and it’s all about the biking. Do I sit and wait behind a long line of cars at a red light, or do I split lanes, ride to the front of the line, and sometimes cross the intersection on the red, if there are no cars coming? Easy. I think it is also a matter of stimulation. Mostly it’s not just following one road for miles and miles, never turning, never straying far from that solid white line. The city is all about weaving and stopping and accelerating, avoiding cars and pedestrians and other bikers. It’s fun.
While enjoying my trek through the city, I did manage to get off course and get myself lost and a bit disoriented, but everyone I asked for directions, which was usually fellow bikers, was so friendly and helpful. One girl even gave me her NYC biking map with all the bike lanes and routes and paths. The couple I stayed with, Lee and Chenell, were really great. We shared some good conversation and some ginger wine. I’m so glad to have met them. Also surfing with them were twin German girls. They were cute, friendly and polite. Funny, though- at first Lee and Chenell told me they were Swedish twins. Of course one can imagine that all sorts of generic fantasies immediately came to mind.
Saturday afternoon I left Brooklyn and headed back over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan to find some good Mediterranean food and eventually to meet up with Max and Rachel. I had been told about a tasty and cheap place to get falafel somewhere around Soho, but I didn’t know exactly where, other than near a Trader Joes. So I set off in that direction and decided to just ask about the Trader Joes as I went. The first guy I asked had no idea what I was talking about; the next girl had no idea where it was; the third, a guy riding on a nifty, triangular-shaped folding bike, was right on. He started to give me directions, then just said ‘follow me.’ So we rode a few blocks and stopped in front of the store and talked a while. His name is Graham, and he is the founder of treehugger.com, a successful green-advocacy website. I was very interested in what he does, and he seemed just as interested in what I was doing. He suggested I write a post on treehugger.com about what I’m doing and about how environmentally friendly this form of traveling can be. I’m going to put something together once I get to Rhode Island. Graham also had a very interesting folding bicycle made by a company called Strida. While we were chatting, several people came up and asked him about it. I was very pleased to see that he wasn’t afraid to let one inquisitive man ride it around. It was a really great interaction.
After eating some tasty falafel nearby (I didn’t go into Trader Joes because I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my fully-loaded bike outside on the sidewalk while I browsed inside), I met up with Max and Rachel. We got a drink, had some delicious pizza with vodka sauce, and hopped on the subway to Prospect Park for a free show. The show was alright. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the music, but it was accompanied by a laser light show, which, shining through the dark onto the foliage, was entertaining enough.
Today we slept in late, a much needed first on this trip so far. Then it was a late breakfast and a walk back to Brooklyn for another free show. I was excited about this one as it was a band I know and like, but unfortunately they are a bit too popular and we got there a tad bit too late. After waiting in line for over a half hour, we were informed the outdoor venue had reached capacity. We caught the subway back to Soho to their apartment. Max and I finished a movie we had started last night and cooked some delicious burritos.
Tomorrow I continue on my bike trip, now only a few days out of Rhode Island. I have to say that this stay here in New York has been one of the most energizing and enjoyable stops on my trip so far. So many friendly encounters, wonderful (but expensive) food, and lively surroundings. To me, this is the best way to see a city, not by visiting the famous landmarks. Unfortunately, this stay has also been the most financially taxing stop so far. With the train ride in and eating out so much and having a few drinks at bars, I have just about exhausted my limited financial resources at the moment. I should be able to stretch what I have left until I get to Rhode Island, and hopefully I have some income coming my way once I get there. As this trip has taught and retaught me so far: stay positive, erase expectations, and have faith.