I occasionally come across people who say they do not like America. For me, such a blanket statement is on par with disliking the world. The United States is one of the most diverse nations on earth, a melting pot of ethnicities, faiths and cultures bound together under one flag. America is much more than its government of the day or its sometimes controversial foreign policies.
Every city has its own special flavour and ambience but one thing they all have in common is the warmth with which Americans welcome visitors. They are a friendly, open-hearted people who in my experience cannot do enough to make me feel comfortable. They go out of their way to make tourists happy no matter their nationality with the realization that tourism creates jobs and benefits the economy. No matter on which side of the political spectrum they sit, they are patriots, proud to call themselves citizens of world’s richest and most powerful nation.
I have traversed the US from coast to coast too many times to remember and never fail to be amazed at the variety of landscapes, cuisines, accents, climate not to mention some of the most stunning natural wonders seen anywhere. Americans may not feature among the planet’s biggest globe-trotters, more than 60 percent do not have a valid passport, but when their homeland offers it all from the icy tundra of Alaska to the swaying palm trees of tropical Florida and the majestic orange dunes of the Mojave desert I get why so many choose to explore their homeland rather than vacation abroad.
Everyone who has travelled extensively around the United States inevitably has their favourite places to which they return over and over again; mine is New York City. Once I had bitten the Big Apple many years ago I was hooked. It throbs with energy day and night. If you wake up at three in the morning you will see people jogging or rushing to get to work.
The unusual sights and sounds stimulate the senses. New Yorkers are straight talkers. They do not wear social masks and I find that refreshing. I enjoy chatting with strangers or simply sitting in a café people-watching.
The other day while having lunch I was struck by the variety of patrons representing many races, colours and religions. Some were fashionably dressed, others conservatively smart, yet others were what we might term in my part of the world as eccentrics. Despite the disparities, no one was out of place; they all blended in seamlessly. Acceptance of the other, tolerance and the freedom to live as one pleases, is what makes New York such an icon of what is best about America.
Like any massive metropolis, New York has its faults. Do not seek perfection. It has to be taken as a full package. It is a powerhouse attracting the super rich, financiers, diplomats, movie stars, technologists, glamorous high-fliers as well as an army of high-powered lawyers. At the same time, New York is the most expensive city in the country. The cost of living for those privileged to live in Manhattan is almost 137 percent higher than elsewhere. Sadly, more than 630,000 New Yorkers are homeless and there are areas in need of a makeover.
Nevertheless the city offers unparalleled opportunities for those hungry for the fabled American Dream and tenacious enough to achieve it. I particularly admire the work ethic displayed by the residents of New York; they are hard working, self-disciplined and they take pride in whatever they do.
No matter how many times I visit or how long I stay, I can never get enough of New York. I always meet fascinating people and come away feeling intellectually stimulated and alive with new ideas and projects.
This month as in previous years, I flew to New York to join a high-level delegation from the Emirates to support the annual Zayed Marathon, a charitable race that heightens awareness about kidney disease. It also raises funds which are donated to America’s National Kidney Foundation in recognition that it was in the US that our country’s founder, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, received a kidney transplant.
The Zayed Marathon is one of the main events on my calendar because it reflects this great man’s highest virtues of tolerance and respect and his honourable deeds including his philanthropic works within and without the UAE’s borders. I appreciate the great love he showered on his people and the world and barring unforeseen circumstances, I always make sure to attend for various reasons.
Firstly, to make the American audience aware of kidney disease that often stems from diabetes, a disease that is afflicting Gulf States as well as the US, is a worthy calling.
Secondly, I hope to inspire young Emiratis studying or working in the US to realize the importance of their role as their country’s unofficial ambassadors and to never forget the principled pillars on which the Emirates stands in terms of generosity, good manners and hospitality.
Lastly to celebrate the life of Sheikh Zayed; a visionary without whom the United Arab Emirates might never have existed let alone emerge as a shining beacon of progress in a troubled region.
Okay, I have to be honest. I have just as much fun at the Marathon as everyone else. It’s a great day out. I get the opportunity to catchup with old friends, laugh at some of my out-of-shape team members huffing and puffing along the track, and my heart swells with pride at so many competitors wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the UAE flag. Did I run? Sorry folks I am not letting-on.
New York combines the fabulous, the good and the ugly, that is the secret to what makes this incredible microcosm of the planet so captivating. I am happy to be its captive. I will be back!
By Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor