It was my third day in the City. I was walking on Fifth Avenue, admiring the storefronts of Bergdorf Goodman and Saks, drooling over a Gucci dress that I could never afford in this lifetime. As I hung outside the Trump Tower, hoping to catch a glimpse of the narcissistic billionaire, I stumbled upon Central Park.
I had never thought of it as anything more than a beautiful park and I was no naturalist. But the horse carriages and the Italian-students-turned-pedicab drivers calling out to me made me feel like an exotic tourist in some film, and that succeeded in dragging me in, if only to tick Central Park off my list of spots visited. Another motivation was to see if I could quickly find a picturesque spot to get that one Facebook profile picture that would make all 34853257 of my Facebook friends turn instantly green with envy. Isn’t that the real reason we all travel?
I had only stepped inside when a tall man with floppy blonde hair, blocked my way entirely. “Would you like to tango with me?” he said mischievously. I waved him off and did my best (and well-rehearsed) eye roll — I had reserved this eye roll especially for any and all men who would try making passes at me on my vacation. Till now, the look hadn’t really been needed and I had been waiting to try it on some amorous male.
“I just thought you’d want to try….free lessons and all,” he said dejectedly as he turned away and left. Feeling slightly guilty, I got back to my mission of finding a quaint bench to perch my tired behind on and get that perfect shot. But before I could even sit down, I heard the most wonderful combination of violin, piano, guitar and flute. The sound was so exquisite that I had to see what was going on.
In the middle of the park there were at least 15 pairs of professional tango dancers, lifting their legs high enough to match the Manhattan skyline and throwing their heads back with abandon, all the while swaying to Argentinean tango music. I joined the admiring audience watching them glide for what seemed to me like minutes but may well have been hours.
“There really was ‘tango’ in the park,” I thought to myself as I moved with the audience towards the next attraction, a bunch of tourists dancing wildly to the beat of African drums.
Before I could reach them, a shirtless man who must’ve been in his 80s roller-skated past me. It reminded me of the lines in the Alicia Keys song, “There’s nothing you can’t do/ Now you’re in New York.” And the 80-year-old in his too-tight biker shorts and his bare chest was no exception.
Just then, throngs of cyclists, roller-bladers and skateboarders whizzed past me. The light was green and I was on a busy Central Park road. I later learnt that you don’t ever want to get in the way of serious cyclists in Central Park — they will run you down without any remorse.
As I slowly made my way back to the greens, I finally saw what drives 25 million visitors to this urban park each year. It is so much more than just a gorgeous park. Shaded by elm trees, with tiny turtles sitting on stones, precious ducklings floating in ponds, lovers staring at each other as they canoed in the lake for hours on end and children licking popsicles as they listened intently to a street performer’s vivid story-telling, laughing hysterically as he performed magic tricks — that’s just a tiny aspect of Central Park for you. Two hours in Central Park, I realised that whoever told me ‘Disney was the happiest place in the world’ had lied. This has got to be the happiest place in the world.
For a budget traveller like myself, the absolute highlight of the park is that it is completely free. Of course, the children’s zoo and 4D theatre have an entrance fee but that too is lower compared to amusement parks such as Disney World. And if you’re super frugal, you can skip these two attractions altogether and still enjoy plenty of other free things in the Park. Most of all, the fun you have here is pure, organic, natural and tech-free fun under the sun. With an area spanning 843 acres, it is close to impossible to explore everything in the park in a single day. Even with two days to spare, I was barely able to scratch the surface. It was only after I spent every other evening for one week religiously going to the park that I was able to understand its various attractions and lively characters inside out.
When I came to NYC, I never imagined spending my very last day in a park. But here I am, on my very last day, sitting in Central Park and, trust me, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world!
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 13th, 2011.
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