With a tummy full of food, beer and wine, I did not sleep well, in fact I did not really sleep. I twisted and turned in bed, listening to the musical din emanating from the night club at the end of the road, and the frequent heavy downpours of rain.
Even though I had set an alarm, I did not need it, I was checking the time every 15 minutes or so. Normally the clump of nerves called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which resides at the centre of my brain, oversees my body's clock; I am locked into a circadian rhythm. The human body is a mysterious and wonderful thing. All of us possess the gene KDM5A which has been pinpointed as the so-called "alarm clock" gene, the gene responsible for when our own personal "It's morning!" switch is flipped. The stress hormones, adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) and cortisol, increase substantially in the last hour before waking, and help to anticipate the "stress" of getting up at different hours. I don't know why, but if I know I need to get up very early, my stress hormones seem to go into overdrive and I effectively anticipate waking up all night long. We're all different. Perhaps if Rex had dragged me off to the nightclub at 10pm I might have managed to get a few hours sleep, or maybe he would have had a job to drag me out of the club.
I arose before the 03:20 alarm time, went through the morning toiletry drill and closed up my suitcase. Rex's head appeared around the door, not quite his usual cheery self, but given the hour of the day. I was comforted in the knowledge that I did not have to waken him. He had very kindly offered to drive me to the airport - a very good friend indeed.
Once I had stripped the bed, I was ready to go. With my bags safely ensconced in the car, we set off in the dark leaving Meryl still in the land of nod, oblivious to the regular beat of the nightclub or our stealthy departure. The rain cascaded down incessantly. Sadly there was very little traffic about at this unearthly hour to betray the presence of treacherous potholes lurking beneath deep, dark pools of water.
As we headed to higher ground we caught sight of two white objects moving in an animated fashion in the murky darkness. As we got nearer this apparition, we realised it was a Bajan jogger, heading in our direction on our side of the road. His apparel was primarily dark colours, and fortunately he had the gumption to wave his hands in the air, palms towards us, so that we could pick him out. Jogging in the pouring rain at 03:45, could he not have picked a better time and weather. Further along we came across a cyclist with a death wish. He too was dressed all in black, and he had no lights on his bike to boot.
We arrived at the airport shortly before 4am. A swift shake of the hands and "Bon voyage!" from Rex, profusion of thanks from me, and he disappeared off into the swirl of rain and darkness. I felt guilty that Rex and Meryl would be left with the bulk of the clean up after out stay, but my mind was soon diverted by the thought of the laborious check-in process. However, the airport was relatively empty at this time of morning. I sailed through passport control and security, and soon found myself sitting in the departure lounge.
Like most airports, when assembled at the gate, the girl on the desk called out instructions like a vocalised machine-gun. Her voice was so distorted (for the technically minded, as if the signal was being passed through a 200Hz wide band-pass filter centred on 1.5kHz), that most passengers just stared at each other, open-mouthed with blank expressions.
Once on board in a window seat, a very large Bajan lady plonked herself beside me, creating localised gravitational waves in the process. I was partially covered by her overlap. She carried a portable TARDIS which she stuffed and kicked under the seat in front of her. Every so often in the flight she would expend huge amounts of energy retrieving this bag, and once open, the word "TARDIS" became immediately justified. It seemed to be metres deep and wide, and contained a small town's worth of stuff. There was no leg room, but miraculously she managed to remove her shoes and replace them with thick, pink athletic socks. A large towel came out later, which she laid over herself to aid her sleep. Failing to sleep, she recovered a laptop from the abyss and whizzed through the keys like an over-charged Chopin. Later she dug out what seemed like a complete home entertainment system; this bag was bottomless. Having hardly slept through the night, I had no inclination to make conversation. I just slipped into a zombie state, alternating between dozing and gazing out of the window.
The blue Caribbean stretched out below me, and at 36,000 feet, it resembled a smooth, blue, baby's bottom. A sprinkling of fluffy white clouds served to indicate we were moving and not just floating in an ether.
After a while of oblivion I noticed an island below me, and a couple of others nearby. The sea around the island was a milky shade of turquoise indicating coral beneath the surface, and a thread of white surf surging over a reef separated the milky shallows from the deeper blue of the Caribbean Sea. A short while later another group of islands appeared. Here the coral resembled pale turquoise curtains draped just under the surface. Here and there deep, ultramarine, circular sink holes could be detected in the submerged coral.
As the plane approached Florida, the Florida Keys reached to the horizon. Here vast tracts of milky coral stretched for miles around the linked coral islands. It was a stunning sight. Feathered trails from fishing boats laced the water. Beyond the Keys, comet tail ripples revealed shoals of underlying coral. Florida's Southern Glades seemed like a surface from a sci-fi film. Huge milky ponds pockmarked the landscape.
"30 minutes to landing at Miami. We are now starting our decent," boomed the manicured voice of the captain. Miami is a very large and busy airport boasting four runways. After tracing a gentle arc in the sky, we touched down, and then proceeded in a start/stop manner as we waited to cross runways under constant use. Miami was my point of entry into the U.S. Most of the immigration control was handled by electronic readers which soon filtered out non-U.S. citizens like me. At passport control I received the usual interrogation, had finger and thumb prints taken for both hands. Surprisingly, this time round my suitcase was not searched in front of me.
The airport terminal is massive, designed to keep sedentary Americans fit by forcing them to walk miles along corridors to the gates. I had four hours to kill here before my connecting flight to La Guardia in New York; good time to catch up on my reading.
My journey from Miami to New York was uneventful, I just sank into an even deeper zombie stupor. The skies turned cloudy and turbulence reigned. Miami had forecast the temperature in New York to be -1 deg. C. As the plane dropped below the cloud base on the line-up approach into New York I noticed snow drifts on the ground. We glided over Upper Bay, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island drifting below me, as we headed up over the Hudson River. Here on the 15th January 2009, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger made an emergency landing after US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of geese. Miraculously, all of the 155 passengers and crew survived the harrowing ordeal, and Sullenberger becomes a national hero. If you get a chance, watch the film. Stretched out before me was New Jersey, a monotonous, grey, Lego tapestry. Meanwhile passengers on the other side of the plane were enjoying a glorious view of Manhattan. Boy did I envy them.
Way before Europeans explored the area below me, the natives to New York were the Lenape, an Algonquin people who hunted, fished and farmed in the area between the Delaware and Hudson rivers. Europeans began to explore the region at the beginning of the 16th century. Among the first was Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian who sailed up and down the Atlantic coast in search of a route to Asia. He stepped onto the island known to the Indians as Mannahatta. In 1609 the Englishman, Henry Hudson, sailed up the Hudson River. Then in 1624 the Dutch West India Company founded a tiny settlement and the first permanent trading post on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, naming it New Amsterdam. In 1626, the settlement's governor general, Peter Minuit, purchased the much larger Manhattan Island from the natives for 60 guilders in trade goods such as tools, farming equipment, cloth and wampum (shell beads). Some farmers cultivated the land on Manhattan and at Brooklyn. The Bowery takes its name from Bouwerie, the Dutch word for farm. In 1658 Dutch farmers built a village they called Nieuw Haarlem (New Harlem) after a town in Holland.
But the early settlers were not all Dutch. They included Walloons, French and English. The first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. Meanwhile the first black slaves, who played a major role in building the colony, arrived in 1628. In 1639 a Swede called Jonas Bronck settled in the Bronx, which is named after him. In 1653 a wall was built across Manhattan Island to protect the little town of New Amsterdam. The street next to it was called Wall Street.
It was in 1664, with England at war with Holland, when an English fleet arrived. Fearing the English would sack the colony, Peter Stuyvestant, the then governor of New Amsterdam, surrendered. This time it was renamed New York in honour of James, Duke of York, brother of King Charles II.
During the 1760s and 1770s, the city was a centre of anti-British activity. As an example, after the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, New Yorkers closed their businesses in protest and burned the royal governor in effigy. However, the city was also strategically important, and the British tried to seize it almost as soon as the Revolutionary War began. In August 1776, despite the best efforts of George Washington's Continental Army in Brooklyn and Harlem Heights, New York City fell to the British. It served as a British military base until 1783. New York City served as the capital of the United States from 1785 to 1790, during which time Washington took his presidential oath at Federal Hall on 20 April 1789.
The city recovered quickly from the war, and by 1810 it was one of the nation's most important ports. It played a particularly significant role in the cotton economy: Southern planters sent their crop to the East River docks, where it was shipped to the mills of Manchester and other English industrial cities. Then, textile manufacturers shipped their finished goods back to New York. But there was no easy way to carry goods back and forth from the growing agricultural hinterlands to the north and west until 1817, when work began on a 363-mile canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The Erie Canal was completed in 1825. At last, New York City was the trading capital of the nation. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of immigrants, first from Germany and Ireland during the 1840s and 50s, and then from Southern and Eastern Europe and China. This changed the face of the city. They settled in distinct ethnic neighbourhoods, started businesses, joined trade unions and political organisations and built churches and social clubs. And the rest is history.
After the early start and long trek, I did not have the heart to negotiate a heavy suitcase across New York's public transport system to get to my hotel in Jersey City, chosen because accommodation is a lot cheaper there than on Manhattan. There was a massive queue for yellow cabs at the airport. I did not strike it lucky with my driver. The location of the hotel had to be explained in triplicate in the utmost detail before he managed to plug its location into his GPS system. This was followed by a conversation in Hindi between him and his controller, after which he turned round to me and asked, "How much do you want to pay?" I was perplexed by this question.
"Oh, $20!", was my initial flippant reply. "Why don't you just use the meter to work out the fare based on distance and time?"
"The meter only applies within the city. Jersey City is outside Manhattan. It is rush hour, and the journey will take at least an hour," replied the driver.
I was unsure of my ground on this one, but I continued to argue the toss as the driver weaved from lane to lane for 2% of the time, the rest of the time he was grid-locked. Much honking added to his and my frustration. However, his controllers seemed to have the final say. "The flat rate will be $100 plus tolls," stated the driver in a take it or leave it fashion. Crumbs, probably the same price as my flight from Miami to New York. I maintained silence for quite a while, but periodically the driver pestered me to agree to the fare via a flat-screen display a few inches in front of me. He continued to chat in Hindi with his controller, who was based in Delhi for all I knew. The journey was a complete nightmare; never ever attempt to drive through New York during rush hour. Despite the distance being 14.2 miles, it took over two hours. But the chap patiently got me there, and now he would have a similar ordeal returning back to base. I knew I was being ripped off, but I was dead on my feet and was ever so thankful, and paid up.
My hotel was pretty basic, but I didn't expect much. My room was quite large and clean, with enough storage for my clothing; what else could I ask for. It provided a complimentary breakfast, but no evening meals. I was shattered but hungry, and with the kind help of the lady on reception, I was directed to a nearby local restaurant that took care of my needs. My bed was welcome that night.