Search This Blog

Monday, March 22, 2010

The US of Africa in New York City

How do you spend your time if you have just 28 hours in New York?

Follow your instincts and see where they take you. This is what my intrepid travel mate, Beth Macy, and I set out to do on a fleeting overnight trip to the Big Apple last week.


And where did we land up? Well, by sheer coincidence, home from home. This meant that my American mate Beth got a touch of Africa in her home country. We drank beer in a shebeen, listened to the pounding Afrobeat of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, and saw the celebrated work of top South African artist William Kentridge at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa). But this is what you can expect in the diverse city of New York.


We arrived in the city on St Patrick's Day. The city was unusually green, unusually kilted, unusually Irish. After getting off the bus in Manhattan and settling in at our downtown hotel on the fringe of Chinatown and Little Italy, we googled Irish pubs in Greenwich Village, thanks to Beth's iphone, a handy travel companion. A list of establishments popped up, but I was drawn to the pub with the surprisingly South African-sounding name - Molly's Shebeen in 287 Third Ave.

Parched from the journey and eager to celebrate all things Irish over a liquid lunch, we headed down to the low-lit, licensed shebeen, which had sawdust on the floor and wood panels on the walls. We fought our way through the crowds to a tiny table at the back of the authentic Irish pub. From the comfort of bar stools, Guinness drinkers watched the annual St Patrick Day's Parade down 5th Ave on a giant television screen. Other than the beer, little else resembled shebeen life back home.

I pestered the preoccupied manager, who was struggling to seat all the patrons streaming into the pub, to explain the origin of the word shebeen. Turns out that the Irish and South Africans have more than a thirst for beer in common. The word, he said, is Gaelic for "after hours".


That evening we headed towards the theatre district to take our $75 (ouch!) seats on the Mezzanine floor at the Eugene O'neill Theatre to see a Broadway musical show that tracks the life of the legend, Fela. (We had booked tickets on our way into the city on the spur of the moment, after reading a one-paragraph, thumbs-up snippet in the New York magazine). The theatre had been turned into The Shrine, the night club that Fela played at for years in Lagos and from where he was perpetually harassed by the military regime. I grew up on Fela's music, especially from my rebellious student days at Rhodes University. When the lead actor and singer Sahr Ngaujah sang International Thief Thief, I got goosebumps as I recalled the huge influence that this wonderfully subversive performer had on my life in those dark, oppressive days in South Africa. After the show (during which time you could recharge your glass at the downstairs bar), I resolved to go out and buy one of his CD's. (Fela died of Aids in 1997).


The next day we joined the queue at the MoMa near Central Park at 10.30am. With less than two hours to explore the multi-layered modern art building, we headed straight to the Kentridge multi media exhibits. There, I felt a mix of pride and anguish for my home country.

The pride stemmed from the huge crowd of people milling around, admiring the Joburg artist's iconic animated films and charcoal drawings on the walls.  (The New York Times reported that as many as 10 000 people a day - "comparable to a rock concert" - are viewing the exhibition). The anguish (or "existential orgasm", according to my husband Steve Pike) stemmed from Kentridge's black and white images which convey the naked pain and brutality of South Africa's past, and the challenges ahead.
My head buzzing, I left with one word for Kentridge: Genius.

Feeling emotionally charged, Beth and I - and our empty wallets - made our way to the Bolt bus to get our ride back to Boston. Just as well I didn't haul Beth off to another home-from-home location, such as Braai on 329 West 51st St, because then she would finally be convinced that I was manipulating our travel agenda to ensure that all the star attractions in New York have their roots in Africa.

We also:

* Walked about 60 blocks, from Chinatown to Central Park. We passed through Times Square, the Empire State Building, the Museum of Sex, the New York Library.

* Sat in a horse-driven carriage for a 35 minute tour of Central Park (note: a costly exercise, but our worn-out feet dictated the decision to splurge)

* Slept for seven hours at our room in the So Hotel in downtown NY.

* Ate dinner at a tres trendy corner restaurant and bar in Broome St, but the highlight was breakfast - tea and granola with yoghurt - at the Oro Bakery and Bar on the same street.

* For lunch, ate a hearty three-egg omelette with french fries at the tacky and authentic Tick Tock diner next to the Bolt bus terminus.