After 24 hours of seemingly non-stop packing and re-packing, an abundance of goodbyes and farewells, last minute flight changes, horrendous scrutiny by US passport control and an hour long guilt trip brought on by a New Jersey cab driver, my trip to New York was not starting out how I’d imagined.
My last day in Mexico City had been spent wandering around favourite old haunts, photographing graffiti and eating my last huaraches and quesadillas with one of my closest friends before meeting up with the rest of those dearest to me for a few glasses of flavoured pulque and the beginning of those long-dreaded goodbyes.
It took me 40 minutes to say goodbye to The Boy as we stood in each other’s arms, a few metres away from a taco stand, on Insurgentes. The Mexican-born, Texas-raised 20-year-old bad boy I’d been dating for the last six months held me close enough so that only I could see the tears glistening in his eyes as the two of us made no promises except to keep in touch as friends. We knew from the moment we met that I was leaving soon, and focused solely on enjoying each other’s company and the time we spent together. Even though I know I want to return to Mexico one day, I don’t know when that’ll happen. And we both have to get on with our lives.
Next came the circle of friends who didn’t let me down; Those who showed up for a late night drink in spite of the fact that it was Monday – a school night – and they all had early wake up calls.
Each one of them – the ‘gringa‘ girls and the Mexican men – made my 15 months of living in D.F. exactly what it was – the most incredible time of my life - and I knew I’d miss them all to death: Liz’s quirkiness, tips on staying vegan in a meat-loving country, and willingness to always say ‘Yes’ to a girl’s night in with a couple of bottles of vino; Alfonso’s quiet but fabulously dry sense of humour; Eduardo’s accidental role as a ‘big brother’ – spending 90% of the time teasing me to the point where I wanted to smack him and the other 10% looking out for me with countless incredible favours.
And then there was Sara, the American girl with the beautiful spirit, hilarious observations and anecdotes, and the heart full of adventure. My former housemate, my former colleague, my future road trip buddie, and my friend forever.
And, of course, Michelle, the one who I miss living only 20 minutes away from, the one I still have the urge to text or phone every day, the one I told all my secrets to, the one who’d let me pass out on her couch after too much rum, the one who was always a friend and never judged. Now that I’ve been away from her for four months, I still think of her and know for sure that she’s someone I’ll always have in my life. I just hope she forgives me for putting off that long-overdue Skype catchup.
Saying goodbye to these people wasn’t just hard; It was painful. I left some of the best friends I ever had; Those people who made my time in Mexico a real life, a life that I loved.
The taxi pulled up outside at 8.30 the next morning to take me to the airport. Barely anyone in my house stirred and I was happy to slip out quickly and quietly without a fuss or a faux exchange of farewells. Needless to say, the last two months of my living situation hadn’t been without its problems … but that’s a story for another time.
With my life packed into my brand new Woolworths-bought suitcase and my laptop, passport and books stuffed into my small carry-on bag, I was all set to say Adiós to my adopted country.
Arriving to my terminal just after 9am, three hours before my flight, I slipped my iPod on as I queued for check-in. A flustered family of fresas stood before me, the mother glancing embarrassed in my direction every time her four-year-old acted like a normal bored and impatient child. The father, dressed a little too formal for a flight, muttered in his native Spanish to his red-faced wife and barked orders at his children in heavily-accented English that pierced through the music playing in my ears.
By the time it was my turn to check in, I was happy to see a smiling face and mentally prepared myself for the part I hate – Saying goodbye to my luggage. I’m lucky to have never *touch wood* flown with anyone who’s lost my luggage, I almost feel like my turn has to come sooner or later. Can anyone really be that lucky?
Upon heaving my suitcase onto the scales, however, I flinched. I was overweight by 4 kgs.
“Can I unload things here?” I asked, timidly.
She gave me a bright smile and gestured that I should go ahead.
Ruffling through my carry-on bag, I finally found the keys to my suitcase padlock before flinging it open and taking out my backpacker’s backpack – something I didn’t want to use as a carry-on due to its impracticality but had no choice.
Emptying all my carry-on contents into my backpack, as well as unloading a heap of clothes and more books from my suitcase, the weight finally dropped and I slammed the case shut, locking it back up.
My carry-on was now four times heavier than I’d originally intended but at least I was within the right weight restrictions. I beamed at the customer service agent, proud at what I’d achieved while keeping hundreds of people waiting, but she barely flickered an eyelid, turning back to her computer to continue inputting my details.
Within five minutes, she scrunched up her face.
“Your flight to Dallas is running late so you won’t make your connecting flight to Newark on time.”
My eyes widened.
“Don’t worry,” she assured me. “What we’ll do is put you on another flight, direct to Newark. You’ll arrive four hours early but at least you won’t be stranded.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“You’ll have to check with the other airline about their weight restrictions though.”
Yup. I’d been moved from AA to United.
Making my way over to the other side of the terminal, I glanced above the United counters to see their weight restrictions flashing across the screens in red.
My carry-on was now too heavy, and my checked piece of luggage was given an extra allowance of 10kg.
So there I was again: That girl you always see on her knees in an airport, her suitcase wide open, all lacy underwear and bottles of tequila on show for the world to see as she rifles back to her original plan of packing while trying not to overstress about things that are not really problems in the grand scheme of things but can really test your patience in the heat of the moment.
Eventually, the flight came and went though. I cried as we flew over the city and wondered when I’d be back. Seven hours later, I was in Newark.
Last year I’d flown to San Francisco and experienced my first taste of US Passport control. Standing in the ‘Non US Citizens’ line at midnight, I’d been pulled out of the queue of a hundred Mexicans and brought over to an empty ‘US Citizens’ window to make things faster for me. Glancing back over, I realised I was the only one who’d been given this privilege; Everyone else had to wait. The passport control guy was incredibly polite and friendly too, and I wondered how many niceties the other agents were sharing with my fellow ‘Non US Citizen’ passengers.
Things were different in Newark.
The agent greeted me with a sullen look as I managed a sleepy “Hello.”
I presented my documents which he seemed satisfied with until my Mexican working visa fell out of my passport.
His eyebrow raised and his eyes shot daggers in my direction.
“Why do you have this?”
“I was working–”
“How long have you been living in Mexico?”
“I was there for 17 months.”
“And what do you do?”
“I was a teacher in Mexico City, I’ve left and am going–”
“Why are you living there? Why Mexico?”
“I was there to teach. I found it an interesting country which I wanted to experience.”
“And why are you here now?”
“… For a little holiday before I go home. … Back to the UK.”
His eyebrows knitted together into a frown.
“Who were you in Mexico with?”
“I went there alone,” I shrugged
“How much money do you make?”
I snorted. “Not much.”
“Uhh … ” I struggled to convert pesos to pounds to dollars in my head.
“How long are you going to be here?”
“How much money have you brought with you?”
“I have about … a grand … ?” I took a guess, adding my last pay and what was left of my credit cards together.
“Do you have an outbound flight booked?”
“Let me see your ticket.”
I took my carry-on bag off my shoulders and began to rifle through. I couldn’t help but panic a little. I rarely feel intimidated. In fact, I never feel intimidated by anyone but, in my sleepy state and with the emotional upheaval of the last 24 hours, I was two steps away from shrugging away from this guy and bursting into tears. His tone was so cold and accusing. I hadn’t even done anything wrong.
After a few minutes, I could tell he was growing impatient. With all the packing and repacking I’d done to get here, I now didn’t have a clue where anything in my bag was.
Eventually, he slipped my visa card back into my passport and threw it across the counter at me before sighing and saying, “That’s alright. Just go.”
I froze. It almost felt like a test.
“Go on, go!” he shooed me away.
I picked up my documents and made a quick exit.
With my luggage in tow, I began to make my way towards the taxi rank. On the way, I spotted a money exchange kiosk and stopped to see if I could change my last remaining pesos to dollars.
“Are you still open?” I asked the distracted lady behind the counter.
“Do I look like I’m still open?!” she barked at me. “You’ll have to change your money somewhere else.”
“Um … I’m sorry.”
Continuing on to the taxi rank, I stood in line while two people up front argued over who was first and a large lady in a uniform strode up and down the queue, giving out tickets.
As she approached me, she asked me where I needed to go.
“Brooklyn,” I replied.
“Where in Brooklyn?” she asked, her pen ready.
“Uh … ” I shrugged.
I glanced down at the address I had written on the back of my e-ticket but there was no area for Brooklyn – just a street name,
She gave me a look.
“I don’t know the area. I’ve never been there before.”
“You’re not from here?”
I shook my head. Wasn’t my accent obvious?
“Isn’t there anyone you can call and ask?”
I shook my head.
“I don’t have a phone to call her. And her number’s on my computer.”
She walked away for a few minutes to talk to her colleague before returning and handing me her phone.
“Look it up on here.”
I can only begin to imagine the look on my face after she did that. Needless to say, seventeen months without a smartphone has now rendered me pathetic whenever someone hands one to me. I was once the girl who knew how to work every phone. Now, a jellyfish would have more luck with them than me.
“I don’t know how to work these…” I handed it back to her.
She gave me another look, shook her head and took the address.
By now I was feeling a little defeated. Everyone I met on my Californian road trip last year had been so warm and sunny and always happy to help. Here, I almost wanted to apologise for my very presence.
After finally finding out where I was going and being ushered towards the next available taxi, I slid into the back seat and handed my ticket to the driver.
Upon seeing the address, he let out a huff and glared at me through the rear view mirror.
“Prospect Park?!? I hate going to Prospect Park! I always avoid that place. That’s how much I hate it! Do you know how hard it is to drive around there?”
He went on and on for the next 50 minutes, listing all the (kind of ridiculous) reasons he didn’t like going to Prospect Park and, once again, I offered a silent and apologetic look as we drove through what felt like a million tolls to get to my apartment.
Seeing the Manhattan skyline lit up at night sent me into silent tears in the back seat. I don’t know whether it was me being awestruck by how beautiful the sight was or just how overwhelmed by everything I was feeling.
When we finally got into Brooklyn, the driver helped me lift my suitcase out of the boot (“trunk”) and drove off before I could say a word.
I was a little unsure about how to feel so far. I’d been warned that East coasters are far more ruthless than their sunny counterparts in the West but was still a little shocked by the last two hours.
Ringing for the landlady, I could have hugged her when she greeted me with a warm smile.
“I know who you are. Your sister’s already here. I can see the resemblance.”
I chuckled – my first proper laugh on US soil – and thanked her before heading for the lift. I was relieved to hear Cerena was here. Arriving four hours early, I was afraid I’d be stuck outside with my luggage and no keys if she’d decided to go out for the evening.
But, no. She was there in all her wonderful, happy, excited, gleeful glory ready for hugs galore and ready to offer me this,,,
This, washed down with a stiff alcoholic drink, was exactly what I needed. Within moments of arriving at my Brooklyn apartment, every little incident that had occurred and tightened my nerves bit by bit in the last few hours, was forgotten.
With the small gesture my girl had made in making sure pizza was here for when my tired arse walked through the door, she not only helped me to relax, but also made me finally feel at home in a city I’d been dreaming of for the last couple of decades.
From then on, there was no stopping my culinary US adventures. I didn’t eat a single food I didn’t enjoy wholeheartedly in California. And New York was no exception.
I wish I was able to show you the countless amount of bagels we had for breakfast while I was there (Living above a deli probably had something to do with it), but most of the time the cream cheese and “jelly” (someone please tell them, it’s “jam”)-smothered bread was long gone before we could even think about pulling out a camera.
I really liked them but, if I’m honest, I think I enjoyed the convenience more than the actual taste. The fact that you can order breakfast to your door on hangover days – or every day - is a luxury I really do miss. But sorry, NY – your bagels tasted just like the bagels I’ve had in Wales. No prizes to you for having the best unless you want to blow me away with a new flavour next time.
My first experience in trying a pretzel bought from one of the hundreds of streetcarts that line the city, however, was happily caught on camera by Cerena.
And in spite of the fact that it was clearly cooked in the same place as the hot dogs (My year and a half in Mexico has trained me to enter into a ‘Ignorance is bliss’ attitude to maintain a vegetarian diet but sometimes those meaty tastes can’t help but burst onto your taste buds), it was nice. But incredibly salty. And really big for just one person. … Still talking about the pretzel, you dirty birdies.