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Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel Asia

Just 400 homicides and all’s well

As New York’s Times Square lights up and dogs practise yoga, we search for the right Sicilian blend in the land of BIG.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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New York - Metropolitan Museum rooftop cafe art
The Metropolitan rooftop cafe features zany sculpture displays

EVERYTHING ABOUT AMERICA IS BIG. Roads. Skies. Pizza. Shorted stock. And outstretched palms the size of Manhattan every time your bags so much as graze a porter. This is a country where shoes are canoes, cars resemble aircraft carriers, and prophylactics can double as sleeping bags. It’s enough to drive any self-respecting Asian insane.

A single burger can feed a starving Indian for a week or obliterate Tora Bora if dropped from a sufficient height. At the very mention of the term “American portion” people run, if for different reasons, from alfafa-chewing New Age dieters to gerrymandering Iraqi politicos who need to be reminded that the years of George Bush mushroom cloud diplomacy are over.

This largesse, so quintessentially American, is at once endearing and unnerving. Malthus will roll in his grave at the mountains of waste. Yet to be in New York at sundown, in Times Square, within the vortex of hurrying humanity and that incandescent neon frisson, is to be visited by an exhilarating adrenalin rush unlike anything other than perhaps watching your mother-in-law sail away on the Titanic.

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There's enough power here to light up Sudan but who cares about a few misplaced megawatts? Plug into the seething current and be swept away to Carnegie Hall, the art deco New Amsterdam Theater, the quietly poignant John Lennon memorial Strawberry Fields at Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Art with its trove of Egyptian antiquities, the pedestrian-only acres of Broadway, Harlem’s storied Apollo Theater and the neo-Gothic Abyssinian Baptist Church, the rocking BB King Blues Club & Grill, and the vertiginous heights of the Rockefeller Center’s Top of The Rock (with its own loyalty programme no less) where nose-to-infinity views await.

The undisputed capital of BIG is New York’s Manhattan. It may be a “sucked orange” as Ralph Waldo Emerson once cavilled but John Steinback set the record straight. “Its climate is a scandal… Its traffic madness… [But] once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no other place is good enough.” Make yourself at home. Crackhead gunslingers are largely a thing of the past. There were just 466 homicides in New York in 2009 compared with 2,605 in 1990. This may be 465 homicides too many for some – Hong Kong averages just 40 annually – but this is the Big Apple after all where hyperbole, hysteria and histrionics are all part of the allure. Who would visit if things were sane? For that we have Singapore.

Now, along with my Mafiosi sounding surname, I even smell Sicilian. Okay, it's citrus, not cordite…

In the taxi I watched a TV show on yoga. This was “doga” for dogs. Slobbering St Bernards that should be bounding up Alpine slopes to save avalanche victims, sat nonplussed on mats having their paws massaged. Alsatians had their backs rubbed and forelimbs stretched while listening to the sound of whales singing. Next time a burglar calls these mutts will assume the lotus position while the silver disappears. The last time I was in a New York cab I was handed a small poster with a mug shot headlined “SCREWDRIVER MURDERER – Have you seen this man?” Times have changed.

In my hotel I pondered an intriguing label in the bathroom. "Skin cleanser," it read. The fine print extolled the many virtues of the ingredients including “olive oil, and extracts of Sicilian Blood Oranges rich in vitamin C and other powerful anti-oxidants.” Should I eat this or bathe with it? Why not just call it soap? It’s the American way. Where else can you get an iPhone doctor like Brendan McElroy (www.drbrendan.com) who'll fix your gizmo from his New York den and mail it back to you? America's youthful try-anything enthusiasm is infectious. Now, along with my Mafiosi-sounding surname Verghese, I even smell Sicilian. Okay, it’s citrus, not cordite. But it’ll do.

It is a sobering thought in a city where one square foot of land costs an average US$1,000 that the Dutch West India Company bought Manhattan from the Indians in 1626 for a handful of gewgaws worth just US$28. These were of course the insouciant Red Indians. Had Christopher Columbus not miscalculated quite so gravely and actually found India – instead of this vast immovable continent – the outcome would have been different. The haggling over New Delhi would be continuing today. The conquistadores gave the New World “Western civilization” and took back to the Old World tobacco and syphilis, a fair trade some might say.

There is more than glitz. Look harder at the core of Americana and you will detect a discernible undertow of thrift and respect for old-fashioned values. Take the Land’s End jeans I picked up from Sears for US$49 with a “lifetime guarantee”. I throttled a chuckle. Seriously? “Yes sir,” said the sales lady. The jeans were made in China and wouldn't last a month in my mother's old washing machine. But I was tickled at the prospect of finally unearthing something that did not have obsolescence sewn into its warp and woof. A lifetime guarantee on anything is as rare as someone who can pronounce Eyjafallajokull.

America is not all Land of the Free and Home of the Depraved, as Hollywood would have you believe…

Later, at the University of Michigan football stadium before a fiercely partisan cheering crowd of over 80,000 (his second BIGGEST audience since the inauguration speech), President Barack Obama delivered yet another of his exquisitely crafted addresses, offering a vision of a unified, morally rejuvenated America to graduating students. With a lengthy list of banned items that included umbrellas, I looked out at the rain, lightning and sodden bus queues at 6am envisioning 20,000 parents shivering naked in the football stadium screaming “No we can’t”. The Class of 2010 – and an army of parents, including this correspondent – survived the security checks and long wait, dignity somewhat intact, peering at each other through clear plastic garbage bags, the only available protection.

Here we were, white trash and brown, with a singular purpose. The president set out his stall clearly, speaking about the need for democratic participation and the importance of divergent streams of thought. We applauded. It is just this sort of inclusivity and unquenchable thirst for answers that has made this country great. It has placed a man on the moon as well as given us The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

America is not all Land of the Free and Home of the Depraved, as Hollywood would have you believe. Despite its hard-boiled pretensions, New York is a city with heart and taste. Take the stately home museum built by Henry Frick now populated with some of the most memorable European classical and English romantic paintings from Rembrandt and Renoir to Turner and Gainsborough. The Frick Collection (www.frick.org) is a splendid warm-up act for the stately echoing corridors of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org).

So when Arizona gubernatorial candidate Tim James came on the telly snarling about the indignity of allowing state driver license tests in 12 languages (“This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it”), I shrugged. It was water off a duck’s back. That’s a state where tough new immigration laws mean if you don't have enough talcum powder on your face the police might pull you over. I wasn’t worried about Arizona. The Yanks will take it in their stride, as they always do.

After the humungous succulent pulled pork sandwich at the BB King Blues Club & Grill (www.bbkingblues.com) I pondered the recklessly proliferating inches along my very own Wild Waist. Oh for some dim sum and the comfort of a paltry 40 homicides. Hello Hong Kong. I’ve no idea if I still smell Sicilian.

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