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Fighting New York temptations

A section of Times Square PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Riding in a big Black Suburban or yellow cabs and a bit of walking through New York City streets can lead to wild temptations. Staff Writer THALEFANG CHARLES spent a few days in NYC and describes the life and temptations of the Big Apple

The New York reception was cold. We walked out from the JFK Airport terminal building following behind our shuttle driver named Gerald taking us to the car. The chilly New York morning weather hit our warm jetlagged faces and Water Setlabosha, my travel companion, exclaimed, “Yeses!” That is when we all quickened up the pace to the car.

Surprisingly, it was still cold even though the callery pear and cherry trees have already started to blossom marking the arrival of spring. It still felt like the middle of June in Botswana.

Our airport ride was an 11th generation big black Chevrolet Suburban… Americans and their big things! Water and I jumped onto the backseats of the Suburban. Onboard, it was warm. Leather seats. Dark windows. We felt like VIPs in transit. But immediately as we drove out of the airport car park, we hit a major traffic jam. “New York rush hour!” our driver announced with a flourish. “They should have put blue lights on this big car,” I murmured almost to myself.

Just over an hour after we left JFK airport, we arrived at the Roxy Hotel in Tribeca, lower Manhattan, a beautiful cheeky vintage hotel. It had been almost two days since we left Gaborone. A runaway rabbit at Sir Seretse Khama Airport had put us in a travel mess as our aircraft hit the animal on takeoff. The rabbit accident delayed our flight to Johannesburg and led to us missing our connecting flight to New York. We ended up sleeping at the capsule rooms of the OR Tambo Protea Hotel and I was faced with explaining to Mr Water as to what kind of rabbit could hit a plane and put us in all that mess. 

As The Roxy Hotel concierge opened the door for us, we had long put the rabbit behind us.  It was time to face the big city before we paraded Mr Water on the Tribeca Film Festival red carpet. We were now in the hub of creativity. Tribeca is one of New York’s most fashionable and desirable neighbourhoods. It is well known for its celebrity residents and its streets teem with art galleries, boutique shops, restaurants, and bars. After checking in and meeting up with the National Geographic team (our hosts) we hit the streets of NYC.

Water and I have been in NYC before so I was confident that I would find my ways around the city. NYC however, can be intimidating especially if you are from a small dusty town out in Botswana and your English accent makes you have to slowly repeat every word you say. Mr Water had admitted and declared that he had no clue whatsoever on navigating New York.

We had private plans to see some places, hopefully do some shopping, in between our tight schedule. So we tried to wave down the yellow cabs and more than 10 of them just flew past us. Water started to doubt my cab waving skills and I could tell he was even getting worried about the whole outing. But I have seen this in the movies – one hand up with index finger pointing and loud call out of “taxi” - that is exactly how to wave a taxi New York. I refused to doubt my taxi-waving skills and got more determined until one pulled over.

The driver was a black guy named Mohammed who said he was “originally from Benin” but has been living in the US for nine years. We chatted about African nations’ hospitality to foreigners as compared to the US. He told us that New York is a “nation of foreigners”.

“People come here, from all over the world, to work,” said Mohammed. He rhetorically asked me whether I have heard of ‘the American Dream’. But before we spoke much about it we were already at our destination and the taximeter had clocked $24,00. That is a hefty amount in Pula terms but Mohammed advised saying, “When you live here you will find it cheap to

travel around”. He was the kind of a cab guy that could lead one to just vanish into New York to search for his own American Dream.

The following day we used our free time to visit Batswana living in New York. A good friend of mine, Tsholofelo Oabile sent an Uber-X to pick up and drop us at Brooklyn where another Motswana, Gouta Mpelege cooked us lunch. The reception of Batswana in diaspora is always pleasing. From many travels in foreign countries, Batswana are always warmly welcoming to their visiting countrymen. They would go out of their way just to be with fellow Batswana visiting and sometimes they even get so emotional that you would tell that they are really missing home. I found this really humbling and makes Batswana such a special people everywhere they could be.

As the film festival schedule got busy, Water could not keep up with New York. He had to do interviews, dinners and celebrity parties – it sounded like fun but when you are an elder and teetotaller from Maun, it is hard to be paid to party in New York. But for a travel photojournalist, it was blissful heaven. After the elegant private dinners with the NatGeo leadership, I wanted loud banging night clubs, so I tied my All Star takkies and hit the mean streets of the big city.

During the day I walked long distances, sight-seeing, photographing and just soaking up the New York vibe.These are the streets that Alicia Keys says they would make you feel brand new. The streets of  my favourite rappers, Tupac Shakur (East Harlem), The Notorious B.I.G. (Brooklyn), and Nas (Brooklyn). The streets of US president, Donald Trump (Queens) and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (White Plains). These streets made Brandon Stanton with his inspiring Humans of New York blog.

One day, I walked from Times Square to Tribeca (about an hour’s walk) just to feel New York. There were many people, some walking all kinds of breed of dogs – some dogs so small they were in their hand bags some clothed in colourful outfits, some I even had to stop because they looked so aggressive that they could break away from their leash – and the thought of saying ‘votsek’ to a New York dog unsettled me. 

There were many homeless people – some sleeping in cold concrete, some begging for money, others just sitting there watching New York pass by. What I found intriguing about New York is that the people are almost always eating. There is an eatery at almost every corner – restaurants, fast food outlets and small fast food trucks serving various dishes from around the world. The food is always too much and for light eater like me, eating in New York makes it appear like I am ungrateful since I never finish their food.

And Manhattan has a constant sound. A fleet of cars moving by, lots of sirens, occasional hooters, people talking, walking, construction works, and subway vibrations.  During one of the celebrity parties, attended by film stars and producers at The Standard Hotel penthouse discothèque, next to Le Bain - one of the famous rooftop bars in New York – I stepped out into the smoking area of the club to watch the expansive views of the well lit Manhattan skyline and Hudson River reflecting the New Jersey skyscrapers on the other side.

Out in the cold on top of a New York skyscraper, watching the lights that inspired some of the greatest humans, and became a magnet of those in search of the American Dream, I once again deeply felt the enchanting spell of New York whispering alluringly to me saying, “You could live here” and that is when I went back inside the disco for some more drinks before this big city leads me into more temptations.

Thalefang Charles was in New York at the invitation of National Geographic during their premiere of Into The Okavango film at the Tribeca Film Festival.


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