What little I saw of New York was as overwhelming as I thought it would be. And then some. But that is not where it all started for me, oh no. See, my dear readers, I have an embarrassing secret to tell you. For some of you, it will not be in any way special, whilst others will find it mildly amusing. Certainly, when one of the friendliest and most fun people I met in New York, a brilliant guy named Mark, heard me say it, his immediate response was – “I don’t know how to talk to you.” I laughed and for a while, he just stared at me in surprise. Wholeheartedly hoping the same fate will not strike you, here is the ever so slightly shocking truth – this trip was not only my first trip to New York. Or the US. Or somewhere to the West of Lithuania. It was also, among all these things, my first ever flight. In other words, my first ever big trip just happened to be to New York City, by plane, over eight thousand kilometers away from home – that’s five thousand miles – and every single bit of it, every moment, was new and special to me.
Oh my, the things I am about to write now…
A man much cleverer than me once said – it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that matters. In fact, a lot of men and women much cleverer than me must have said something of the sort. And, as is often the case with clever men and women, they were all very much correct. The journey really does matter. My journey started in Vilnius about three hours before the flight. After a quick last minute chat with Nasim, I threw most of my baggage away and packed only that which was absolutely necessary. What counts as necessary when leaving home for a week somewhere very, very far away, you might ask? Basically, my passport, boarding pass, a (rather unnecessary) copy of ESTA papers and, most importantly, my lovely X-E2 with a single, borrowed lens on it. Oh, and some clothing as well. All of this fit neatly into an old Lowepro backpack. Minutes later, I set off.
The first brief stop was at my girlfriend’s work place where I gave her a quick kiss and promised to write her as soon as I had the chance (which would not happen anytime soon). After that – the airport. Sounds perfectly normal, doesn’t it? And, in most cases, it is. But there is this thing about Vilnius – or, actually, one of its neighborhoods. Should you ever wander a few miles south of the Old Town, you’ll find yourself in a very peculiar place. Quite a dangerous one, and because of it – ever so tempting for street and people photographers. I’ve never been to that region of the city before, but the last time I heard someone go there with a camera, he had a friend with him. A friend who’s shoulders were as wide as my two-door closet at home. Or my bed. Which is to say, pretty wide. Was I nervous going through such a neighborhood before a very important trip, with an expensive camera in my backpack? Well, sort of. But I am also a brave fella, despite my rather narrow shoulders. So… I took a bus. And then promised myself to find a broad-shouldered friend for future visits. So very brave of me!
As my first flight, it is only appropriate that I got to experience all the joys and despairs of inter-continental travel. And I enjoyed immensely every single one of each. No first-class tickets, oh no no. Instead, a 27-or-so hour journey with a plane switch in Istanbul, where I’d spend around twelve hours trying to sleep in the ever-full airport. Before boarding my first two-and-a-half hour flight, I figured (rather correctly) I might need such basic things like food and water, so I better stuff myself with something. Two things I did not know: first, there would be a line of rather overly-friendly looking Gypsies waiting by the store for possible…well, I want to say “victims”, though that really depends on whether you have a broad-shouldered friend with you (“Hey, honey, want to take a walk with me?”); second, even on such a short flight, you get a pretty satisfactory meal on the plane and all the water (or something else) you can drink. A quick bite and some friendly racing with an elderly man I did not know in the airport later (he won, by the way), and I was on the plane slightly baffled by just about everything.
I guess my baffled expression was clearly noticeably to my neighbor-for-the-flight. The young man – he was sixteen or so, one of many dressed in bright red sportswear on the plane, clearly an athlete of some sort – was obviously not flying for the first time, nor sitting next to someone who was. Without knowing a word in English, he managed to explain how to work the entertainment system, seat belt and what all the strangely-packed snacks were. It was all in Turkish, see. I did not understand anything in Turkish. He then gave me two tiny Mars chocolate bars – proof that language barrier really is just a thin piece of paper.
And then the plane moved. I must admit, I was a little worried. My first flight, remember? Well, I did lap my hometown once in an old “Kukuruznik” biplane when I was little, but never ever did I fly on one of the big(ish) things. To all you frequent fliers, this is probably plain boring and I may even seem like someone who just got off a recently-discovered, untouched-by-civilization corner of the world, of which there are none. Certainly, I saw a few passengers already fast asleep. Another thing I was baffled by, because as soon as the plane was lined up correctly, I was smacked into the seat with everything around me very loud and fiercely vibrating. It’s almost as if the plane itself was not liking the torque (or, rather, thrust), let alone my intestines. It was nothing like acceleration in a car, even a very quick one. Seriously, the feeling of something so massive accelerating so swiftly…
No. It was nothing compared to the same massive thing taking off. I was that guy who was holding the armrests of his seats with too much force and not even feeling it. How could I, my ears were about to explode from the change in air pressure. I am not afraid of heights or flying, no. But one thing I understood instantly – such enormous, massive metal things should not be up in the air and I don’t care about all the laws of motion or Bernoulli’s principles in the world!
The Ataturk airport in Istanbul is an enormous place. Before my trip, I was told by a friend that one is never alone in such places. That thought kept crossing my mind as I watched all those people come and go (few seemed to have to wait for their flight for as long as I did). I saw different cultures, different professions, people of all ages. Quite a few of them were not even born yet. The seemingly endless corridors were as impressive as the exterior of the building – under the cover of the night it, too, seemed endless. But it was a cold place. Uninviting, somehow. It may have been in part due to all the reflective surfaces bouncing off the numerous and different light sources in every direction. Every now and then I would spot someone walking through one of the corridors and that person would seem minuscule and out of place. True enough, finding a place to, for example, get some sleep was not an easy task. To all those planning a trip somewhere, take a note – should you ever need to spend a certain amount of hours at an airport switching planes and decide to take a nap, never sleep on a naked metal bench. We all know this, but we don’t always think about it. Dressed or not, you will get sick. I got sick. Days later, coughing violently just about all the time, I’d swear at myself for not going up to the second floor of the building earlier – benches there weren’t completely bare and proved to be much more comfortable for sleep. Mind you, some people found the floor to be more comfortable for sleep. All part of the adventure! It sounds strange when I say this, but even those twelve hours in the airport – I would not have it any other way.
I was learning new things about the camera I took with me, too. The Fujifilm X-E2 is a gorgeous thing. Despite being completely electronic, it manages to look classic. And you’d think such a tool – especially in silver guise – would attract attention more so than something so many of us own, a black DSLR. But no. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as discreet with a digital camera hanging around my neck as I did then. Part of it was probably because few cared about some guy walking around and snapping a picture or two every now and then (and I wasn’t exactly overzealous), part of it was because everyone was just so tired, and part – because often there were just so many people around, it was hard focusing on one particular person. And yet mostly it was because the camera is just so small and quiet and unassuming. I worked very hard to learn to handle my large Nikon DSLR without people paying too much attention to it, but it wasn’t ever easy. I’d still get those three looks from time to time – one look into my eyes, the other towards the camera, and then back to my eyes again, changed. With a mirrorless camera in my hands, I’d only get the first one, if any. On the downside, I had to pretty much forget focusing on people that were moving towards or away from me, at least in artificial light – the camera just would not keep up. Shots that I’d be able to take with a DSLR even in single focus mode – focus and snap right away – were coming out out of focus to such an extent they were unusable. Something to still learn and find a way around, then. But you can’t do the same with the battery – it doesn’t last long. In fact, it last very, very little. Having at least two spare ones for a day’s worth of shooting is a must even if you turn the camera off between shots. Save for this niggle, though, the X-E2 was the perfect companion, just as any mirrorless camera would be on such a trip. Hardly weighing anything, it was never a hardship to carry around and not once did I ask myself that terrible question: should I bring it with me? Yes. Always, always yes.
The flight from Istanbul to New York J. F. Kennedy Airport (which, by the way, I found to be a bit more “cozy”) was an elongated version of the one I took previously, and although technically it was already my second flight, I was just as bewildered as before. This time, though, I was the one helping out – be it showing how a remote control for the infotainment system works to a young mother on the flight with her child or filling in necessary papers before arrival for a man from Georgia (the country, not the state) who, for the whole twelve hours, could only sit for 15 minutes at a time due to a recent back surgery. As he and I talked, I kept looking around. The young mother had finally put her daughter to sleep. It was no easy task, the girl was tired and, as it is with children, very active at that point. There was a young family sitting behind me with two children and their daughter was busy with just two things – either crying all the time at the top of her voice, or having fun kicking at the back of my chair with all the strength she could muster. No one complained once. The parents did not raise their voice, flight attendants were as friendly and helpful as ever despite the tiredness you could see clearly in their eyes, I did not turn around in frustration to stop the young girl from kicking the chair. Despite the children’s tears and the long hours of flight, everyone seemed at peace. That I found to be most bewildering. I love staring at people, observing them, sometimes to a point where it’s almost impolite, and I saw a lot of beautiful things on that plane of all places.
Having passed all the security checks (“What kinds of food are you bringing in?” “Cookies.” “Just cookies? “Just cookies.”) and finally catching a WiFi connection to send a quick note to my loved ones back home, I was to catch a bus to LaGuardia Airport where Nasim would be arriving shortly. Suffice to say, I stared a lot through the window as the bus made its way, snaking through a city so enormous, so crowded, it alone held nearly three times as many people as my home country. It struck me how many cars there were on the road. And I have to say, Americans like their cars big. I saw all those things you’d associate with USA, too – the trucks, the immeasurable amount of different cultures thrown into one pot, the towering buildings, the businessmen crossing streets with suitcases and phones stuck to their ears, fast food trolleys on every second corner. And a lot of beautiful people. Where I come from, there is this cliché about the fake american smiles and commercialism everywhere you look. Perhaps there is some truth to it, I do not know. What I do know is I saw little of it during my short visit, and although a short visit is just that and never enough to get to know a place, especially one so vast, it didn’t matter. The people that I got to meet were as genuine as they come. Some of them were among the kindest people I’ve ever met. And one such person, someone I’ve known for almost four years yet was about to meet for the first time, had just walked in through a door in LaGuardia Airport. He put his baggage down, I took my backpack off and we gave each other one hell of a hug. With patting on the back and everything. Nasim’s broad smile to a slightly terrified me promised I’d see some wonderful things and meet wonderful people over the next few days.
And, my word, it was true.