For those of us working, I guess the first time you get asked, or commanded to go on a business trip can be both exciting and frightening at the same time. Depending on the purpose of the trip and destination, it can be insightful or stressful. My first call came in 1995 when I had just joined a MNC as an engineer. My boss told me that I was required to go to New York, USA, to attend a training session for one of the high-tech equipment that we operated in the factory. Yippee! I thought to myself, I’m going to New York!
A training trip isn’t really stressful, but then you are expected to become an expert once you return. That’s when the stress starts since everyone will start looking to you for answers when something goes wrong with the equipment.
So the day came when I had to take the long flight from Singapore to New York. It was an 18 hour flight, with a 2 hour layover at Frankfurt. It did not help that we had a 3 hour delay just before takeoff and we were not allowed to get off the plane while they fixed the problem. This was one of the few times where I was really pissed with SIA.
So after almost 24 hours leaving Singapore, I finally landed at JKF International Airport in the middle of winter. There was a snowstorm the day before and snow had been cleared from the runways, until they reached the height of the planes’ wingtips. That was some heavy snow that fell! After clearing immigration and getting interrogated by the immigration officer on my purpose for coming to the USA, I found myself looking for the driver who had come to pick me to the hotel.
I also discovered that it pays to do some research on your destination before you start your business trip.
So I asked the driver, “Are we going to New York City? Is the hotel there?”
The driver turned around and looked at me, “Your hotel is in Long Island, Hauppauge.”
I learnt something that day; New York is not the same as New York City.
So after around an hour’s drive, I finally arrived at the hotel in Hauppauge, Long Island. It was really in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by snow and trees. Well, I didn’t fly for 24 hours here just to look at snow and trees, so I asked the driver if it was possible to go to New York City from Long Island.
Again he looked at me and said, “You can drive, or you can take the Long Island Rail Road. But I won’t advise you to visit New York City because its dangerous, especially after dark. If you do go, be sure to leave before dark.” With that ominous warning, the driver left me at the hotel.
So after checking in, I asked the concierge if there was anywhere nearby that I could go visit. He looked at me like I was nuts and said “There isn’t much around here, besides it’s snowing heavily outside and it’s too cold to go anywhere.” Ok, that was that, I was stuck in the hotel for the rest of the day. But the concierge was right, it was February and mid-winter, temperatures were -12°C in the day time, and on that day it was snowing rather heavily too. My excitement about this trip was beginning to fade.
Next morning, the snow had stopped and I got a chance to walk around the hotel before the vendor came to pick me for the first training session.
The one week of training passed by quickly. Along with me were several other engineers from different companies. Most of them were Americans except for me and another guy from Malta. As the only 2 foreigners, we got special attention to try everything American from their steaks and beers, to topless bars. Especially, topless bars, because some of the Americans couldn’t believe that those are banned in Singapore (and Malta) and felt that we were missing out on something in life. I think I had visited almost every topless bar in Long Island that week (Well, no pictures allowed in the topless bars, so nothing to share).
At the end of the training, I was on good terms with one of the Americans from Texas, a Latino guy, and the Maltese guy. The three of us decided to make the ‘dangerous’ trip to visit New York City, since all of us had never been there before. And yes, I didn’t travel thousands of kilometers and 24 hours just to look at snow and trees (and topless bars).
On the Saturday morning we took the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) from Hauppauge, and passing Brooklyn we finally arrived at Madison Square Gardens. I guess that at present, New York City is a much safer and better place compared to 1995. Two years earlier in 1993 there was the Long Island Rail Road massacre, where a gunman came aboard the train and started shooting passengers, killing 6 persons and injuring 19 others. This was the same train that we were taking to Manhattan. The 3 of us prayed that there will be no crazy guys with guns coming aboard our train.
The train ride alone took more than an hour, and with just less than 6 hours to spend, we decided to just visit the Empire State Building and World Trade Center, the 2 tallest and most well known buildings in New York. We didn’t have time to visit the Statue of Liberty that day. So the 3 of us set out in Manhattan. We were as varied as the melting pot that New York is. There was me, the Asian; the Latino and the Maltese. I think we looked like some multi-cultural gang roaming the streets of New York.
So after the Empire State Building, we decided to go for lunch. The Maltese decided that he wanted to try a Big Mac because there weren’t any MacDonald’s restaurants in Malta. We told him that he was going to regret his choice, and after eating the Big Mac, his reaction was “What so special about it? It tastes lousy!” The Texan and me were laughing really hard.
After lunch it was on to the last stop of the day, the World Trade Center twin towers. Security was tight when we took the high speed lifts to the observatory floor. Terrorists had tried to bomb the place before by detonating a truck loaded with explosives in the basement carpark. Unlike the Empire State Building, the observatory of the World Trade Center was enclosed and not open air.
As it was winter, it got dark early. We decided that since there was 3 of us, we could stay on a little while and enjoy some New York nightlife despite the warning from my driver. And again, it was a topless club, by request of the Texan. But this was Manhattan and not Long Island, so the rates were really expensive, and I guess we felt really out of place, as the patrons were mostly suit wearing bankers and businessmen. After a quick look around, we decided that we had enough of New York City for the moment and headed back to Madison Square Gardens to catch the LIRR train back to Long Island.
History trivia: 1995 was the time of the OJ Simpson murder trial and every night there was extensive coverage on the news channels. The Maltese guy even asked us “Who the hell is OJ Simpson? What’s the big deal about him?” How do you explain a nation’s obsession with some celebrity who’d murdered his wife?