by Henrylito D. Tacio
“START spreading the news, I’m leaving today…” I was singing the Frank Sinatra hymn while packing my bag.
For the first time in my life, I will be going to the United States, the country that most Filipinos are dreaming of going to. “Where are you going this time,” my mother asked.
I had not been telling anyone about this trip since I didn’t want them to know if in case I won’t be going. Big Apple, as New York is sometimes called, I told her. Her eyes widen. She couldn’t believe what she heard. After all, when I was still a little boy, I told her that one of my dreams was to visit any place in the United States.
“Yes, it’s a dream come true,” I replied as I wiped the tears falling from her eyes. She never said a word after that but instead hugged me tightly.
“I’m coming back, mom.” The trip took place right after the Y2K hoopla.
Don Hinrichsen, an American environmental journalist, invited me to co-write a paper on water and population for the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. We never met yet although we communicated every now and then via e-mail.
The trip was very exciting for me. In fact, the night before the trip, I was not able to sleep well. I was afraid I might be late in going to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila. So, even if it was still three in the morning, I woke up and took a bath. Afterwards, I went to the airport and checked in.
The Northwest Airlines flight from Manila to Tokyo was long – four hours. We disembarked at the Narita International Airport and stayed there for a couple of hours before our plane left for the United States. It was another long flight.
For the next thirteen-hours-and-a-half, I was doing what most passengers were also doing: eating, reading, writing, walking, drinking, playing, watching movies, and sleeping. When feeling bored, I watched other passengers.
There was a mother bottle-feeding her baby.
An American couple three seats from me were talking, or perhaps they were arguing – sorry, I really could not tell the difference. They were too far for me to eavesdrop.
In another lane, one huge man was snoring out loud (was the lady near him trying to find another seat, I can only guess).
Two fat men – probably not Greeks! – were drinking to their heart’s content while another one was typing in his computer.
Welcome to New York, the airport sign said. Thank you, I said to myself but my biggest problem was: how do I get to know Don, whom I have never met yet? Five days before my flight, he e-mailed me and told me to look at the airport’s waiting area for “a tall guy with mustache and wearing a hat.”
The information was not enough so I decided to e-mail Dr James Hansen, a former colleague who now works in New York. “Yes, I will pick you at the airport,” he answered back.
Now, if I would miss spotting Don, then there was James. Or, vice-versa. Since I knew James personally, he was the first person I looked for at the waiting area. He wasn’t around; maybe he was late, I consoled myself. So, I decided to carry out the second plan: to search for a tall guy with mustache wearing a hat.
I spotted three men. Who among these three was Don? Using my gut feeling, I approached one person and asked him if he was Don. He answered affirmatively. Still not convinced, I requested for his identification card. He showed his ID without much ado. In no doubt that it was Don and started talking with him.
When suddenly, someone from behind called my name. It was James. “Sorry, I wasn’t able to recognize you, Henry,” he apologized. “But when I heard your voice, I am sure it is you.” Since Don knew the hotel where I would be staying in New York for the next 10 days, I went with him. James understood the situation. But before he left, he asked Don about the hotel and then told me that he would pick me up by Saturday morning.
It was still Thursday when I arrived. When Don and I arrived at the hotel, he told me not to sleep. After all, it was still two in the afternoon. “Okay, thanks for the advice,” I told him before saying goodbye.
But when I was alone in my room, I tried to stretch my body and before I knew it, I was already slumbering. I woke up at 8:30 in the evening and was already starving. I went out and looked for a place where I could eat. Not far from my hotel, I saw one Mexican restaurant, not very fancy but was serving pizza, short orders and drinks.
Not knowing what to eat, I ordered what was familiar to me: pizza, chicken wings and soft drink. I ate my food with gusto. The following night, I went again to the same place. The same waiter was serving me and I ordered the same thing. On the third night, I still went to same place. The same waiter was there. But before I could utter my order, the waiter said, “Do you want pizza, chicken wings and soft drink, sir?” Was my face red?
It was in December when I visited New York and during my first three days, I did not experience any chilly weather. But on the fourth day, I ventured to visit the Central Park, which was not very far from the hotel. I woke up very early and went outside the hotel. I was only on my fifth step when I felt the unpleasantly cold air that I had to rush back to the hotel. “Anything wrong, sir?” Feeling embarrassed, I answered, “I just forgot something from my room.”
Exploring New York was not a herculean task. If you know how to count (first, second, third, etc.) and are familiar with directions (east, west, south and north), then you won’t get lost in the Big Apple. You don’t have to ride a taxi to get to know New York. Just walk.
And that’s what I did. While walking, I finally got a glimpse of people whom I had seen in movies before: a teenager buying coffee and donut in the street, a man preaching on the street corner, a female walking who seemed to come out live from a glossy magazine, and an old woman pushing a cart.
Life in New York (even in other parts of the United States) is a matter of choice. Even when buying food. So, you have to be very specific. I did that mistake when I ordered a soft drink. “Diet or Classic?” the waitress asked. When I answered, she asked again, “In can or in bottle?”
My first trip to the United States was indeed memorable. It broadened my mind. It gave me the opportunity of meeting fascinating people along the way. More importantly, it offered me a new perspective of what life really is.
“So, how was the trip?” my mother asked me when she saw me coming out from the car. She was smiling. I hugged her and whispered, “It was great, mom!” And, by the way, I learned, too, that New York never sleeps. — ***