Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters

My wife and I have been taking some time to go out for long walks while I’m not so swamped with classwork. Central Park is nice, but we live a lot closer to Fort Tryon Park, which is also an awesome place to visit. We can walk there from where we live and the park itself has some great views of the Hudson River and The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that houses a large part of the museum’s medieval collection.

We walked around there on a Saturday afternoon. Since it was a Saturday afternoon, the park was full of Jewish people relaxing for Shabbat. We saw families sitting on benches, walking together, taking in the view, and kids playing. There were groups of people on picnic blankets and some playing games.

My wife and I would like to go back and have a picnic. Maybe we can pull that off this weekend.

Visiting Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island

Guyon-Lake-Tysen House c. 1740 with kitchen addition in 1820s.

Before this month I’d never heard of Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island. The place isn’t heavily advertised and the carpenter in the recreated shop there told us that he wasn’t surprised, because a lot of people that live there in Staten Island have never heard of the place either. You almost wouldn’t know it was there if you rode by on the bus or in in a car. Maybe that says more about the quality of buildings on Staten Island in general than it does about the site, though, that it’s hard to tell buildings that are almost 300 years old apart from the rest of what Staten Island has to offer.

Getting to Richmond Town from Upper Manhattan was a little bit of a struggle. The A train kept stopping in the tunnel and then went local below 59th Street. I know they’ve been doing some construction on the tunnels during the week, at night, but it would be nice if the city could keep the trains running on time when they’re not doing work on the tracks, otherwise what’s the point of the new construction schedule the city pushed? The ferry ride was nice, at least. I always enjoy the views of the city from the boat. The bus ride from the ferry to the town was about 25 minutes, which isn’t too bad.

When we got to Richmond Town we were afraid it was closed because the place was so quiet and empty. I guessed that it was because this is Memorial Day weekend and most people probably stayed home to relax or went out of town for barbecues. When we got to the ticket counter in the gift shop, the clerk there said that Memorial Day weekend is usually really quiet and cited the same reasons I suggested. I didn’t really care that the place was empty of people. Getting away from the crowds in New York City, seeing some trees, grass, fresh air and open spaces was just fine with me.

The fact that most of the buildings were closed was a problem, though. No one there was in costume. When we went on the 3:30 tour, our guide used a set of keys to open up each building we went into and had to take time to open the shutters so there would be light inside. She kept mentioning that the buildings saw regular, period-style use during the week. I wonder who has time to go out there during the week? I’m going to have to do some research and make some phone calls to find out if we can go back on another weekend and see the place completely up and running.

That being said, the tour was really good and our guide knew quite a bit about the houses she was showing us. She was also ready to answer random questions about the facilities and other buildings we were walking by. I was not disappointed at all. It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Here are some of my favorite photos from the place:

Better quality images and more details can be found in my Historic Richmond Town Flickr gallery.

Inspiration Point on the Hudson River Greenway

Inspiration Point on the Hudson River Greenway in Northwest Manhattan
Inspiration Point on the Hudson River Greenway in Northwest Manhattan

If you go up the Hudson River Greenway, between the 181st pedestrian footbridge and where the Greenway currently ends at the northern branch of Riverside Drive at the northern edge of Fort Tryon Park, you’ll find Inspiration Point.

There’s no way to access Inspiration Point except by using the trail. There are no parking spots and no way to pull over to the side of the road, though it looks like there might have been at one time. There is a raised section of concrete there that my wife stood on while she waited for me to finish taking pictures and looking around.

I suppose it’s a spot that not many people will visit. It’s isolated, and regardless of whether you enter the Greenway on the north end or at the pedestrian footbridge to the south, it’s a pretty long walk to get there. Maybe the fact that there are rarely people there is why the area is called Inspiration Point. You can be alone with your thoughts there, if you can ignore the highway traffic directly behind you anyway.

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View of the Hudson River from Inspiration Point
View of the Hudson River from Inspiration Point

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Regardless, the structure is really well made, and really interesting. It has a sort of ancient Rome feel to it, minus the red brick flooring anyway. What was this structure originally built for? I can’t imagine such an extravagant structure would be erected just for the occasional walker on the Greenway. Looking at Google Maps, I got the impression that the section of the Henry Hudson Parkway between where Riverside Drive stops at 181st Street and where it starts again north of Fort Tryon Park used to actually be Riverside Drive and was then converted into the northbound lane of the parkway.

A little further down from Inspiration Point are two pillars on the opposite side of the road that look like the entrance to an old driveway. It is currently overgrown. That, and what looked like an old parking area near Inspiration Point makes me think traffic on that road used to be a lot slower.

On a blog about infrastructure (infrastructureemily.com), I saw a picture of stairs leading down the side of the Inspiration Point structure to another lookout area. I didn’t even notice that. Now I definitely need to go back and take another look. The author of the other blog didn’t try to sneak down there and look around. I might!

Billings Terrace
Billings Terrace
Billings Terrace
Billings Terrace

Right next to that driveway I mentioned earlier is Billings Terrace. It’s very cool looking from down on the Greenway! I really want to go up there and take a look around. Billings Terrace is in Fort Tryon Park, where the Cloisters and most of the medieval art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is housed. There are also renaissance fairs there sometimes.

Trekking Across the George Washington Bridge Into New Jersey

Lower Manhattan and Hoboken (I think), New Jersey as seen from the George Washington Bridge
Lower Manhattan and Hoboken (I think), New Jersey as seen from the George Washington Bridge

When I was in the Army, there was a running cadence that went something like this:

I can run to Jersey just like this,

All the way to Jersey and never quit.

I can run to New York just like this,

All the way to New York and never quit,

Because I’m hardcore,

Motivated,

Dedicated,

etc. etc. (The cadence changes here depending on the unit type)

Well, when I crossed the bridge on foot yesterday, I wasn’t running, but this cadence was rattling around in my head. I was thinking that, of all the times I responded to or called that cadence when I was in the Army, I never actually crossed any state lines during PT (physical training). But, yesterday, I started a walk in Manhattan and ended up in the Fort Lee Historic Park across the river in New Jersey, and then came back again. Maybe in a few months I will go back and run that route, but for now I’m trying to take it easy and just enjoy myself.

The bridge’s walkway is pretty popular. I saw a lot of tourists with name tapes stuck to their shirts as well as families walking across, or hanging out on the bridge. Just as a side note, I noticed a lot of Jewish people hanging out up there. I was reminded of how many Jewish people I saw in the Bronx Zoo last June. I don’t say that to be racist or anything. I’m just wondering if I’m stumbling across popular hangout spots for Orthodox Jewish families, because I don’t recall seeing that many Jewish people hanging around lower Manhattan, the Natural History Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Or it could be that I just never noticed?

Anyway, the views going across the bridge are stunning. My iPhone photos aren’t going to do it justice. I’d like to go back with a real camera to try to get some better shots, and I will definitely have the opportunity, because even if I don’t run across the bridge one day, I’ll definitely be walking all the way back to Jersey.

Also, just as a side-note: In my last blog post I wrote about walking up the Hudson River Greenway underneath the George Washington Bridge and I noted that it seemed like the bushes along some parts of the trail were hollowed out, like people live there. Well, it seems like there are some homeless people living in the park, after all. When I was on the bridge, looking down, I saw a homeless guy through an opening in the trees trying to get comfortable. You can barely see him in this image, but he’s resting his legs on that blue box:

A homeless man getting comfortable in the bushes off the path in Fort Washington Park along the Hudson River Greenway.
A homeless man getting comfortable in the bushes off the path in Fort Washington Park along the Hudson River Greenway.

Weekend Outing to Times Square

Times Square, New York City
Times Square, New York City, June 3, 2012

This past weekend was the only weekend in my one and a half week break between the end of Spring Semester and the beginning of Summer classes.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.  My wife was encouraging me to relax and have a good time.  I was thinking about doing some heavy reading and trying to get ahead on the books assigned on the syllabus for my first summer class.

I never did get around to that, mostly because I decided to migrate my blog from Blogger to WordPress.  It’s taking a lot more time to complete than I thought.  The import was a little complicated.  I had to export from Blogger, import to WordPress.com, export from WordPress.com, and then import to my WordPress installation.  Needless to say, there are tons of formatting errors, not the least of which is that images are either really blurry or not loading at all, depending on the browser.  I have to fix that.  I’ve been working on getting the categories and tags set up first though.  Maybe I’ll be done by next weekend!

Anyway, I didn’t want to spend all weekend in front of my computer screen.  Luckily, one of my wife’s teachers from med school was in town so we went out to meet up with him at Times Square.  After chatting and walking around with him a bit, he left to meet up with other friends, so my wife and I did the tourist thing.  I pulled out my camera and started taking photos.  We did some shopping and window shopping and wound up eating out.  It wasn’t a spectacular day but it was a great day and a good weekend outing.

East River Park Running Track
East River Park Running Track. One of these ladies tried to steal our water bottle.

Sunday, we hit the track and ordered pizza.

Now, the time for fun and games are over.  I have to get ready for the first day of my first summer class: Islam in the West.  It should be exciting!

Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila, Philippines

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The Intramuros area of Manila is actually pretty big.  There are still sections of the original wall wall running through the city, complete with rusty cannons and stone guardhouses, which people can still walk on.  These areas aren’t maintained well, though they’re kept relatively clean.  The inner area of the wall seems to have been converted into mostly tertiary schools, souvenir shops, restaurants and a few businesses.  We didn’t wander the walls or the greater Intramuros area during this trip; we went straight to Fort Santiago.

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Fort Santiago is the site of the oldest military compound in the Philippines and has been attacked, destroyed, rebuilt and used by the Spaniards, Filipinos, British, Americans and the Japanese during various wars and occupations.  It’s purpose has been both noble and terrible as a site for national defense and the scene of a major massacre.  Currently, the area is in varying states of repair, with some areas looking well manicured and others crumbling with every gust of wind.  You can see where some structures have been shored up with improved technology over the centuries, like a few steel braces and beams we saw on the original red brick Spanish military barracks which was originally built in 1593.

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Before entering Fort Santiago proper, there is a well manicured area that must have been rebuilt to give you a sense of what the area looked like in its prime, under Spanish control.  It’s really quite nice.  There are also a few cafes and gift shops in this area, as well as a partially restored warehouse that was used for storing goods brought in off ships.

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There are still a few ugly ducklings around that need some attention and restoration, but I saw plenty of construction material positioned alongside and in front of them, so at some point these should be fixed up nicely.  I’m especially curious as to what the second building was for.  It looks like a residence.  A rough guess is that it belonged to the owner of the shipping warehouse across the plaza.  Some of the chips on the walls look like they were caused by bullets though, so perhaps at some point a group of soldiers tried to use it for a makeshift defense.

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To enter Fort Santiago proper, you have to cross a moat using the original bridge.

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Flanking both sides of the gate are relief carvings of what look like Spanish soldiers.  They’ve both been heavily damaged, perhaps through intentional defacing by angry Filipinos who resented Spanish rule.

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These red brick ruins are all that’s left of the barracks built by the original Spanish soldiers in 1593.  During the American period they were used by military officers and their families.  The building was destroyed during World War II.

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The two holes in the first image, and a few others like it, were placed along the waterfront area of the fort, by the Pasig River.  When we first saw them my wife said they looked like places for holding prisoners.  I looked down in one and saw that it had a tunnel that led back into the fort so I guessed that it was a powder and munitions storage area.  Turns out we were both right.

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The Spaniards originally used the area as storage vaults for munitions and powder, but it was too damp to suit their needs.  They built a new storage area further away from the river and turned it into a dungeon for prisoners.  This area would later be used by the Japanese to imprison and torture Filipino and American guerrillas, civilians and POWs.

Just past that sign I’m standing in front of in that picture there’s an opening that leads down into the lower level.  It was locked up.  I’m guessing it was damaged during the Ondoy disaster last year and hasn’t been reopened to the public yet, which is a shame because it would have been very cool to get a first-hand look at something with so much historical significance.  I’ll have to find out who to annoy into reopening the area.

Since I couldn’t go in, I stuck my arm down through the opening and took a few pictures with my camera.  When I got home later and transferred the images to my laptop, this is what I saw:

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Notice anything odd about that image?  Here are two more that I took from different angles:

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That’s just a tad bit creepy right?  I think it must be a statue, because later I saw bronze statues through an opening in another closed off area, but those were all one solid color.  This one has different colored clothing on and a more natural looking skin tone.  The area is creepy anyway, because the Japanese massacred 600 people in there at the end of the war:

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The whole Fort has a pretty heavy atmosphere.  A lot of lives were lost in that small area and during the majority of its existence it has been used as a stronghold for a foreign military on Filipino soil.  As we walked through I couldn’t help but imagine the way things must have been in the past, what the soldiers must have done, both good and bad, or how the Filipinos felt when they saw the walls.  I spent some time in the US military so I wasn’t imagining ‘glorious battle’.  I was just wondering at the daily routines.  What did they eat?  Where did they eat?  I wondered how they’d adjusted to the heat and if they ever flicked cigarette butts over the wall into the river.  I wondered where they used the toilet.  The simple stuff that often gets overlooked in action movies.

Fort Santiago is well worth a visit and I’m looking forward to going again when more areas are open to the public.  Besides the dungeons, the actual building Jose Rizal (the Philippines national hero) was imprisoned in as well as a walkway down by the river were blocked to the public.  I still think it must be due to last year’s Ondoy storm damage so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a reopening sometime in the next few years.

Note: In this post I deliberately avoided talking about Jose Rizal, though his presence in the fort does play a large part in the nation’s history.  The reasons for that are that I don’t know enough about him to discuss him yet and I focused on the areas that interested me or had significance to me as an American.  The fort has a very nice Jose Rizal museum which you can take a look at if you have an interest in that aspect of Filipino history.  I’ll be posting about Jose Rizal in the future when I’ve heard about and read up on him more.

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (AKA Manila Cathedral)

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That’s a pretty big mouthful, but basically what I’m talking about here is the church that’s designated as the command center for the Archbishops of Manila.  To be precise, these esteemed gentlemen:

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A few posts ago I showed some photos of the cathedral in in Antipolo.  It’s pretty nice, but the Manila cathedral was designated as a Minor Basilica for a reason.  It’s got great architecture and a LOT of history, as you can see from the picture above, which shows archibishops dating back to 1573.  We went through it rather quickly, because it was as hot as an oven in there, but on a cool day we could go back and spend a few hours reading all of the information that’s put out on display.  A quick history is that this church was originally established by the Spanish during the colonial period.  It originally fell under the diocese of Mexico, but eventually gained its own authority and power structure.  The building itself has, in part, survived multiple wars, a massive fire and an earthquake.  It’s been rebuilt a few times.

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The exterior and interior of the building are in pretty good shape.  There was some quiet renovation work going on while we were there, but it didn’t detract from the overall experience.  I’m not Catholic, but it was still inspiring to be in such a sacred place with over 400 years of history, so we took a few moments to offer up prayers before leaving to continue our self-guided tour of the Intramuros area.

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This is a view of the cathedral from the main entrance towards the chancel.  It’s a pretty big area.

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If you walk to the front and then turn and look above the entrance, you’ll see the pipe organ.  A plaque I read said that the first Catholic missionaries to the Philippines brought musical instruments with them, including a portable box organ which was probably destroyed in a major Manila fire in the 1500s.  It didn’t say exactly when the pipe organ was put in place, but it said that for almost all of the cathedral’s history, there’s been a Master Chantre, some of which were specifically named as organists.

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Just after taking this photo, a young guy walked in, embraced this cross and began to pray silently.  I’ve noticed that Catholics place a lot of importance on symbols, images and things as objects or focal points of prayer.  It seems bizarre to me, because there shouldn’t be an object between yourself and God.  On the other hand, I suppose something that inspires (properly placed) devotion can’t be all that bad.  Being in the cathedral was a strong reminder and incentive for me reflect as well.

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This is the “La Pieta”.  I didn’t read the plaque, so I don’t understand the symbolism behind the statue, but it’s well made.

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This is an image of Our Lady of the Philippines located in the Manila Cathedral.

I’m looking forward to visiting this cathedral again.  We were a bit short on time and just happened to see it while on our way to Fort Santiago so we rushed through.  I may create an additional post about this cathedral in the future, since it’s such a wonderful and rich landmark in Manila.

“You Will Die!” … Over 20 Philippine Pesos

Something I’ve been having issues with since coming to the Philippines earlier this month (and really on every trip to the Philippines before this) is being overcharged.  You can get around that by going to stores where the prices are clearly marked on the items before buying them, but then you miss out on all the good deals keep your wallet thick.  This problem goes for the markets and for services, like public transportation.

If you’re not familiar with the Philippines there are tricycles, which are a motorcycle with a sidecar, that are used for short-range transportation.  The prices are set by organizations and the local government and those prices are posted inside the vehicles with a sticker.  Set routes to neighborhoods outside the town proper are set by the organizations.  Even so, I’m constantly arguing with people that are trying to overcharge me, like I have pesos falling out of my butt every evening and can afford to just give away extra on every transaction I make.

Tonight, we came out of the grocery store with a buggy full of items and got into a tricycle.  We needed transport over about 1 km (or less) of distance to pick up our laundry.  Our bags were too heavy to walk that far, especially given how crowded the streets are in the evenings in Antipolo.  So, the fare should have been 20 pesos.  That’s the standard.  When we pulled up in front of the laundry place, my wife handed the driver 20 pesos and the jackass started demanding 40.  The night before we took the same route and the jackass in that tricycle was demanding 30.  I like to call this the “white tax”.  While arguing with the guy I quickly pulled all of our stuff out of the sidecar in case he tried to take off with our things.  Then we ignored him and went inside.

When we got our laundry we packed it away into a bag we had bought.  We’d actually taken our laundry to the cleaner in black plastic trash bags because we hadn’t found a proper bag for it yet.  When I looked out the window, this prick was still sitting there watching us, as if he expected us to come out and say sorry and then pay him what he was demanding.

I told my wife to ignore him and not give him anything more than what he was owed.  I’m not in the Philippines to make everyone rich at the expense of our livelihood.  So, when we walked out and started up the street, he started his tricycle and shot past us screaming “You will die!”  Ya, good job dude.  We wrote down his plate number and we’re going to report him in the morning.  The fines for tricycle drivers who attempt to overcharge are pretty steep.  I hope he enjoys his 1000 peso fine for trying to be a prick.

When you live on the local economy you can’t afford to let people nickel and dime you to death, and even if I had a huge wad of cash, I wouldn’t be handing it out for free, or to someone who tried to rip me off.  I’m nobody’s chump.

Street Rats

In the Disney movie Aladdin, the idea of being a “street rat” was glorified as an honorable way of making a living, with a code of ethics and a comfortable life.  In reality, things don’t work out quite that way.  I’ve seen poor people on the street here in the Philippines and they don’t look like they’re having quite as good a time as Aladdin was.  They’re dirty, they’re hungry and they live in a way that’s dangerous because at any moment of the night someone could take their lives.  It’s not that adventurous when you think about it.  It’s a torment that must be a horrible way to live.  Even at my worst, I’ve always had a roof over my head and a little something to eat every day.  So, I have pity for these people when I see them in the street.

In the Philippines, and perhaps everywhere, that pity has to be tempered by wariness about the real nature of the person holding the cup or the annoying children that flock around me like little vultures.  Here in the Philippines there are organized begging rackets where beggars are put out on corners like a pimp would set out prostitutes in other parts of the world.  The individuals doing the begging are made to look more forlorn than they may actually be, and some of them may have homes that they go home to in the evening.  Most people probably learned about this activity by watching the movie Slumdog Millionaire.  The same practices you see in that film are employed in the Philippines.  So, you can’t be too free with your money when you see these types of people coming up to you in the road, or holding a cup out to you in front of a store.

The ones that really annoy me are the groups of kids that try to surround you and start asking for money.  They even go so far as to start grabbing at your clothing.  My guess is that this is to distract you while their friends start fishing in your pockets for whatever they can grab and run with.  When I first visited the Philippines in 2008 I had a lot of patience for this sort of behavior, to the point that it annoyed my wife.  She always shooed them away as fast as possible.  I didn’t really care.  My attitude about it has changed now though.  I suppose that when you visit a place, those minor inconveniences seem quaint and entertaining, but when you actually move to that place and you know it’s something you’ll have to deal with on a repeating basis, the patience you had before wears thin quickly.  Now, when these kids surround me and start asking for money I give them a very gruff, ‘”No!” and keep walking.  If they persist, or start grabbing at my clothing, I push them away physically and tell them to “Fuck off”.  That message normally gets through to them and they break off their pursuit, often accompanied by a string of expletives in Tagalog, the local language.  I suppose that they think that just by being white, I must have tons of cash and I’m just holding out on them.

If you think that’s a little rough, given that these are kids, keep in mind that it’s typically organized.  They do it every day.  They beg as a job, rather than out of necessity, and I’d rather come across as a jackass than have my belongings stolen from my pockets while trying to play nice.  Life in the Philippines isn’t just hard because the money is worth less, it’s hard because you have to be hard to survive when you’re out of the house.  No one has bottomless pockets and every peso counts.

International Thai Boxing. TONIGHT!

Unfortunately this is one event we didn’t get to see, this time around anyway.

What we did see (and hear) were the boxers riding around on the tops of trucks.  There was a recording playing, lauding the boxer and his achievements and informing onlookers of when the next show would be held.  Louder and more forcefully spoken than any other part was the word, “TONIGHT!”

These trucks were riding all around town and as that word repeated itself over and over it became both catchy and annoying at the same time.  While talking to each other we would sometimes throw that word in, “TONIGHT!”, just for a laugh!

As the trucks ride through town, they’ll stop at busy locations and a guy with flyers will jump down and run around passing them out.  So, if you go to Phuket, you’ll definitely get the chance to see these guys, even if you don’t go to the show.

Here are a few more photos.  As you can see from them, and from the flyers we had, there are quite a few nations represented in the event.  Also there were two women competitors.

This guy was posing on top of the truck for photos.  There were a couple of us there on the sidewalk with cameras ready.