Saturday, April 26, 2008

Baltimore to New York... by train

The plan for this trip was to have a little solo adventure up to New York City by train, then stay in a hostel for the night. I'd never taken a train or stayed in a hostel in the US before, nor had I ever spent the night in Manhattan. The ideas was that I'd be able to explore the city on my own and take whatever pictures I wanted. Here's how the experiment went...

April 22, 2008
Depart: Penn Station, Baltimore, Maryland, train 94, 14:47
Arrive: Penn Station, New York, New York, 17:21
Cost: $87

Accommodations: Gershwin Hotel near 27th and 6th, $41

April 23, 2008
Depart: Penn Station, New York, New York, train 187, 21:05
Arrive: Penn Station, Baltimore, Maryland, 23:33
Cost: $61

Canon 5D
Canon SD800
Canon 24-70/2.8
Canon 400/5.6
Canon TC-80N3 remote
Mountainsmith Tour bag

What Worked
Took the Baltimore light rail up to Penn Station from University Center for $1.60. Make sure to get on the train marked "Penn Station." And yes, I got on the right one.

The train had two standard electrical outlets for every pair of seats. I didn't have anything to plug in, but if I had, that would have been a huge plus.

I was able to easily walk from Penn Station to the Gershwin Hotel, though the 23rd Street Subway station seemed to to be closest.

Took the subway up to 96th on the west side of Central Park to get to the reservoir, so I could get some sunset shots of the city across the water. There were a ton of runners on the path around the lake, so I had to watch out for them. Luckily, I accidentally walked across the park to the north side of the lake, which meant I could work my way around clockwise, which was the same direction the runners were going.

After the sun set, I switched the camera into Monochrome (black and white) Picture Style with a Red Filter option, and bumped up the ISO 1600. This gave some pretty cool hand-help pictures of the city at night. The contrasty red filter and the high-ISO graininess reminded me of good old Tri-X 400 from my days at Technique.

Chicken dinner for $6 at a street-side vendor at 53rd and 6th, near the Hilton. Known as The Platter. Get the rice and pita bread. I hear the sauce is good too, but you have to ask for it, which I didn't realize.

There are many drug stores in the city, mainly Duane Reade and CVS. These are enormously useful if you need a cold drink, snack, or if you forget your shampoo or allergy medication. Incidentally, the grocery stores in the city don't seem to carry many over-the-counter drugs or cold drinks, probably due to the number of drug stores.

The hostel dorm rooms at the Gershwin Hotel are co-ed. The two girls in the next bunk were in the city shopping for a week. One was an acting major from Newfoundland, Canada named Annie. The other was on a five-week tour of the Americas from Amsterdam. Apparently, the big thing right now is for Europeans to come to America to go shopping. The girl from Amsterdam kept going on about how cheap everything was since she was spending dollars instead of euros. Annie, on the other hand, was just happy to find more clothing variety since there aren't a lot of options in Newfoundland. In particular, she complained about how her underwear was the same as her boyfriend's ex's, so she couldn't surprise him. I think she will after this trip though.

I'm glad I went by Roosevelt Island, just to see a different aspect of the city that most people don't both with. I took the Subway, but the tram/cable-car looked like it would have been fun.

Sitting down and looking at a guide book makes you looks less like a tourist than standing up and looking at a guide book. If you really want to avoid sticking out, duck into a coffee shop. There are Starbucks everywhere. I used the Not For Tourists 2008 Guide to New York City with some black tape over the shiny title. Overall a good little book for finding the closest whatever. The Central Park map could have used much more detail though, and going from one part of the city to another required looking at multiple pages.

Swinging by the Guggenheim Museum was a good idea, even though I decided not to buy a ticket. The lobby/atrium is free though, and often has some pretty interesting temporary exhibits. They also have some cool stuff in the gift shop.

The Post Office at the intersection of 91st and 3rd allowed me to buy individual postcard stamps. I was able to write my postcards in the shade of the buildings outside.

There seems to be random open wifi all over the city. This worked really well with my iPod Touch, and was especially useful since I hadn't bothered to bring my laptop.

The map store at on 43rd between 6th and 7th had many interesting maps and guide books, but nothing from Liberia.

I made a stop in Bryant Park to rest on the grass and try to take some time-lapse photos. There was a surprisingly large number of people there. There was also free, open wifi which I used to browse the web on my iPod Touch while the camera snapped pictures of the crowd automatically. In the end, the time-lapse experiment didn't go too well. However, as I was leaving, I walked by the New York Public Library and noticed a great view of the Chrysler Building in the setting sun. I busted out the 400/5.6 and mini-tripod and was able to get this shot.

I happened to get onto my return train in the "Quiet Car." I thought this was a pretty nice feature, since it meant no loud conversations or cell phones were allowed. The ironic part was that the intercom seemed to be even louder in the Quiet Car than the regular car. This may have been to wake people up so they wouldn't miss their stop.

I was impressed with the consideration of the attendants on the train. When they took my ticket, they gave me a card with my stop marked on it. I then placed it above my seat so they could see that they had taken my ticket. They also used this to notify me that my stop was coming up. If I had fallen asleep on the return trip, this would have been greatly appreciated.

What Didn't Work
I got to Baltimore's Penn Station way too early. I didn't know what to expect, so I figured I'd give myself a wide margin of error.

The Baltimore light rail only seems to run until 11pm during the week, so I had to take a taxi home for $9 (includes tip). I wanted to make this trip entirely without using a car, but it didn't happen.

The Gershwin Hotel did not have full-size lockers, just small laptop-sized ones. I was able to put by bag in storage though, which worked out just as well.

I did not need to bring my own pillow, towel, or blanket to the Gershwin. This would have significantly lightened my load.

Going to Roosevelt Island in the morning to get some sunrise pictures of the city didn't work as well as I'd hoped. In particular, I wasn't able to get to the southern tip of the island which was closed for construction. From the southern tip, I would have had a much better angle of the UN and possibly the Chrysler Building.

The touristy parts of New York were even more crowded during the week than on the weekend, which was unexpected. I'm guessing this is because the number of tourists is fairly constant, but when you add all the business people that are there during the week, it gets even worse.

The Apple Store on 59th and 5th was insane. I'd been to that one before, but it seemed like there were twice as many people in there this time. Of course, it seems like Apple's market share has about doubled since I was there last, so maybe that was it.

Planning to spend the entire day exploring and taking pictures was a bad idea. I was on my feet at 7am to get some morning pictures of the city. However, my train didn't leave until 9pm. By the late afternoon, my feet were in such pain, that I couldn't even walk around for more sunset pictures. I think this had more to do with the length of time on my feet than the distance traveled.

I took the 400mm lens so I could get some "different" pictures of the city. This only partially worked. It seemed to be too long for most things in such a packed city. I think I will stick to the 70-200/2.8 in the future.

On the whole, my pictures didn't focus on the details enough, which is where NYC really is. I actually did a better job of this last time I went to the city with friends.

I got to New York's Penn Station too early as well. It wasn't as bad as in Baltimore though, since this station was much larger, took more time to figure out, and had many more food options.

I thought I was going to be a bit of a trend-setter by taking the train. I thought the train would be mostly empty. I thought I'd have my choice of window seats. I was wrong. There were many (normal) people taking the train up from DC to Philly and NYC.

The Gershwin Hotel was right next door to the Museum of Sex. Yep.

The Gershwin was fine as a hostel if you'd just looking for a place to sleep. Bring earplugs.

Amtrak was a great way to go to and from NYC, especially solo. Very punctual as well.

New York is in the details. Focus on them.

A medium telephoto zoom is more useful in a city than a long telephoto lens.

Pack light.

Don't overdo it on foot.

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