When you have a flight that arrives in Newark at midnight and have a connecting flight leaving at ten the following morning, most people would resign themselves to sleeping on their luggage in a quiet corner of the airport. Not me. I had to explore.
I should start from the beginning. It was 2011 and I had organised a J1 visa (usually acquired by students travelling to the USA for summer work and travel) as I was going to work for a company that sold educational software door-to-door (that’s a story for another day). I was flying from Belfast to Nashville, Tennessee and was not the flight booking wizard I am today and had a layover of around ten hours. As always with Immigration in the US, it took hours to get through and it was just after 2 am when I got to the arrivals hall with my huge suitcase. It was around this time that it truly hit me that I was in New York, a city I had only seen on television and read about in books, for the first time. I thought that I would never be back (my summer plans didn’t include the city at all), so I should try and make the most of the next six hours.
Off I went to the train station and booked a return ticket to Penn Station, Manhattan. I lugged my rather large suitcase with me and got on the first train that looked city bound. It was 02:30 and I sat down in a section on my own. As the train started moving, a man in the compartment next to me started talking to me and I told him what I was in the states for and that I may only have one night in Manhattan in my life and I wanted to explore. He offered to show me around. I accepted straight away – what could possibly go wrong?
First time in New York!
The train arrived in Penn Station and my new friend Mathew (Kas) decided I should have a flavour of some New York food. Outside the station was a place that sold “Dirty Water Dogs”, which were hot dogs with different types of sauerkraut. I wasn’t impressed.
It was at this point we decided to take the subway to Times Square. Public transport ran all night – this was absolute madness to a girl from rural Northern Ireland. Once I got back up to ground level at Times Square, I was completely mesmerised by not only the bright lights but by how “quiet” it was. My idea of this area was hustle and bustle and although it wasn’t quiet by any stretch of the imagination, it was a place where I could sit down, grab my first American Starbucks and have some serenity in one of the busiest places in the world.
Alas, I had to keep moving. This is a big city and I was on borrowed time. Next up was the Rockefeller Center. At the time, I knew this part of New York mostly for the large Christmas tree and ice rink beside it. I now appreciate it a lot more for the television aspect. I was filled with adrenaline and could not get over how busy and how quiet the city was at the same time.
Where you find the ice rink at Christmas
Kas and I then walked along 5th Avenue. I got to see the large array of famous stores that I’d only ever seen in publications. The Apple building was something completely out of this world to me. At this stage, the city was beginning to get lighter and the early morning hustle began.
It was after this, I got my first glimpse of Central Park. I still couldn’t believe the amazing places I was seeing. We walked along the south side of the park and ended up at Columbus Circle. It was at this point that Kas said he was rather tired and I should probably make my way back to the airport. He was concerned for me and didn’t think I should take the train alone (you never know who you could meet there). He hailed down a famous yellow cab. It was a relief not to be carrying my massive suitcase around with me anymore.
Putting on a brave face to go back to the airport
The journey back to Newark cost me $70 (I remember this bitterly to this day) and I got to watch the sun rise over the city along the way.
I got back into the airport and to my check in desk full of energy and excitement, but mostly a love for a wonderful city that I was already craving to go back to.
On a soppy side note, “that fella I met on the train at half two in the morning” has turned into one of the best friends I have. He’s one of the first people I turn to if I need words of wisdom and he always finds a positive way of telling me to wise up. When everything went belly up with the aforementioned job, he offered his spare room to me and another Northern Irish girl to stay in.
The morale of this story is not what it is expected to be. I took a big chance getting on a train to Manhattan in the middle of the night (did I mention I had big and heavy luggage?) not knowing what to expect. I definitely didn’t expect to get a personal tour from a New Yorker and I definitely didn’t expect to gain such a good friend.
What’s the most exciting thing you have done on a layover? Has that stranger you met in a strange place become a close friend?