Urban jungle exploration: NYC, Philly, Boston

My morning coffee in Maine

I am writing this from mid-coast Maine, looking out across a sunny lawn surrounded by woodlands outside the house. My hosts, former coworkers from Maine Media Workshops, are all running around campus in the frenetic chaos that governs the summer camp-like atmosphere of the workshops, performing their various duties with surprising efficiency. I, on the other hand, am relaxing in the peaceful sunshine of a summer morning, listening to the birds and chipmunks chatter at each other in the woods. Soon I will head out for a swim, a jog, and perhaps a boat ride.

The tranquility of coastal Maine serves as stark contrast to the bustling, noisy cities I just emerged from.

New York City, abbreviated

I landed at La Guardia a week ago, on a Thursday. The NYC bustle immediately accosted me as I exited the terminal. The smell of garbage, exhaust, urine. Honking cars, yelling people. Countless smartphones in the hands of innumerable people, everyone absorbed in their own world, their own business. Taxi queue. Stinky cab, Indian driver. Traffic. Queens, then Brooklyn. Bodegas, fried chicken stops, pretzel carts and fruit stands, sad against the drab backdrop of shuttered storefronts. A woman, covered in tattoos but little clothing, yelling something in Spanish at a shirtless man across the street with a small child. An old man slumped on the stoop of his apartment, a pug with its nose smashed against the courtyard gate.

Oh, New York.

I arrived at my friend’s house in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, the heart of the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities. Noah, also a former coworker from MMW, greeted me at the door. Our night consisted of: a train ride to Manhattan, dumplings in Chinatown, drinks at some bizarre bar with a random assortment of colorful regulars, and some aimless strolling.

The next day we returned to Manhattan, fairly comatose until we reached a much-needed coffee shop. It was here that I discovered my first New York casualty: my sparkly travel coffee mug, a custom piece from my partner, had fallen in the cab from the airport and was thus whisked away into the churning chaos of the City. At home in New Mexico, my mug would have returned to me (it has my email address on it). But New York is not so kind. Small sentimental items are mercilessly absorbed. And so, RIP sparkle mug. Hopefully Ben will make me a new one (hint hint).

Array of weirdness at Natural History Museum.

Next stop: Natural History Museum. I always find these establishments, along with zoos, to be some of the most bizarre expressions of our complicated relationship with animals. Bears appear stand on their hind legs among a carpet of grasses, mountains in the distance and a pine tree with perched birds to one side. In reality, it is a bear hide skillfully stretched over bone and wire, a frame to support a styled approximation of a once-living animal. Glass eyes, shellacked nose, plastic plants, stuffed birds, painted backdrop. Not life, but life-like, stuffed into a diorama in a row of other such constructions. Bison, wolves, jaguars, elk, pumas, porcupines, ferrets, badgers, armadillos… an army of creatures carefully posed in life-like settings. In other rooms there are exotic animals similarly stuffed and posed: gorillas, Bengal tigers, African lions, wild dogs, oryx, spider monkeys, ostriches.

I wonder how these specimens were “collected” without irreparable damage to their hides. An animal that dies of natural causes in the African savanna falls quickly to scavengers. Were they plucked by scientists from their habitat with tranquilizers? Are the bullet holes conveniently hidden from view? I could Google it, but part of me is afraid of the answer. Most people don’t seem to care about this, however. They point and ogle, make comments about how scary or weird or beautiful each stuffed animal is, pose in front of their favorite diorama for an iPhone photo. Nature reduced to Instagram hashtags. This interaction between human visitors and the life-like constructions is perhaps the most fascinating part of the visit for me. As interesting as taxidermy is, the human animal in its constructed environment is far more entertaining.

Central Park stroll
Central Park stroll

We passed through rooms with prehistoric skeletons. Another exhibit with whale skeletons and indigenous tools made from whale bones. There was a reptile room and a bird room where the birds have their wings and feet tucked tightly against their bodies, necks outstretched, eyes closed, mounted like a thousand feathered bowling pins behind glass. We finished with the beginning — a CGI presentation of the Big Bang theory (not the TV show, but the actual scientific theory).

After all those dead animals, I was in the mood for vegan food. Fortunately, there is an awesome vegan place not far from the museum. Peace Food Cafe on Amsterdam is one of my NYC favorite spots. Noah and I stuffed ourselves with chili, cornbread, soup, and curry chickpea fries. Amazing.

A quick stroll through Central Park, then time to part ways for now.

Philly, without cheesesteak

Jodi, Adam and Lexi. <3
Jodi, Adam and Lexi. ❤

Only an hour train ride from NYC is Philadelphia. My roommate from Eugene (circa 2004), Jodi, lives in Media. It would just be silly not to visit her while I’m in the Northeast. So after a brief NYC stop, I was off to Philly.

Last time I was in this area I didn’t do any of the normal tourist activities, except the admittedly phenomenal art museum. This time Jodi and her fiancee Adam took me down to the main historical area, where the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall are located. Throngs of tourists, both foreign and domestic. We meandered around a bit, and Adam imparted his knowledge about the city’s history. So now I can say I went, I saw, I left. I’m not much one for super duper tourist time usually, and aside from museums my tourist activity is limited. We drove from there to University City, ate some delicious French African food (yassa fish, fresh ginger juice, and red rice), and then found some vegan dessert.

A quick note: You might have noticed my preoccupation with food while traveling. In New Mexico, we are blessed with great Mexican food, but little else in the way of cuisine. While I am not a city dweller by nature, I do enjoy the amazing array of foods in larger urban areas. So I spend a lot of time eating while on my travels.

Hiking in Pennsylvania
Hiking in Pennsylvania

The rest of my visit with Jodi and Adam was spent hiking with the dog, jogging around Media, visiting with their families for Father’s Day, and cooking. Not so bad at all.

Monday was a day spent in transit. Train to train to train to rental car, driving to Boston from New Jersey.

Quick stop in Bean Town

I spent my one-day visit in Boston with a Couchsurfing host in the suburb of Arlington. I love it when CS hosts become instant friends, and this was one such case. I won’t go into too much detail about my short visit because the Maine sunshine is calling me. Suffice to say my time in Boston was spent running through the hilly suburbs, doing homework while torrential downpours raged outside, eating more delicious food, and attending a hipster-filled concert in Harvard Square. Fun!


So now I am off to enjoy sunny coastal Maine in a vacation capacity, as opposed to the workaholic capacity of last summer.


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