USA 2016 Travel Diary: Behold the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island

I will admit I never quite appreciated what the Statue of Liberty stood for before this little trip to Liberty & Ellis Islands. I mean, I know what it is, but there’s a difference between knowing and really understanding. When I was planning this visit, I think subconsciously I was on a mission to attain a deeper understanding of what the Statue of Liberty represented.

I heard that the ferry lines going to the Statue of Liberty can be somewhat insane, so my Dad and I woke up extra early to catch the first trip. It wasn’t too much of a problem for me. I still couldn’t shake off my jetlag!

The cruises depart at Battery Park all the way downtown, and because we wanted to be smart about it– aka we wanted to hit two birds with one stone or something like that– we decided to pass by Wall Street on the way. My Dad wanted to see the buildings from outside, and I thought what the hey! It would be nice to see Wall Street in real life for once.

Alighting at Wall Street Station, our morning stroll turned quite scenic as we passed by the imposing Federal Hall and New York Stock Exchange. The streets were quiet and nearly empty, with only fellow tourists in surprisingly posh outfits milling about. (I remember this because I was requested to take pictures by one of them.)

Walking towards the direction of Broadway, I caught sight of the historic Trinity Church. It stands right at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, and is very hard to miss. This was the landmark I used to orient myself towards my destination.

Thankfully the weather was really conducive for walking. I was initially scared that we’d get lost and not make it in time for the ferry, but when I spotted the Wall Street Charging Bull at Bowling Green Park I knew we were heading the right way. Even in the early hours people were gathered around the bull already. Maybe they’re taking pictures with it for financial good luck?

From here it’s easy to spot where to go. You just keep walking until you start to see water in the distance. The first structure I saw was the ferry terminal for Staten Island. Staten Island cruises are actually free and pretty great (or so I’ve heard), but that’s something I decided to save for next time. So on we went!

Battery Park stands on a 25-acre piece of land that houses two ferry terminals, a huge fort, and a couple of memorials. The East Coast Memorial commemorates those who died during the Battle of the Atlantic. Over 4,600 names are inscribed on those huge slabs of granite on either side of the bronze eagle statue.

On our way to the ticket counter, this caught my attention because of the words ‘Manila Bay’.

Since we were going to use our New York Passes for this cruise, we had to redeem our tickets from Statue Cruises. There’s a booth inside the Fort Clinton where the tickets are sold, and the New York Pass only gives you tickets for the ferry ride. If you want to go up the Statue of Liberty itself, you have to pay separately. My Dad and I didn’t feel like it.

We made it before the morning crowd!

Sailing the Upper New York Bay is nice and calm, and it takes about 15 minutes to get to Liberty Island from Battery Park. It’s not a boring 15 minutes by any means though. The views are topnotch! This is always something I love about brief scenic cruises.

As if I didn’t already have enough Manhattan skyline pictures! Didn’t think I’d fall in love with it more.

The moment you get to Liberty Island, you will find the most attention-demanding woman you will probably encounter in your life. The Statue of Liberty is absolutely massive, but there’s a calmness about her that permeates you as you look up.

As the story goes, when immigrants arrived into the United States in their ships, the first thing they saw was Lady Liberty holding up her torch. During that time, when life everywhere else in the world could drain you down to your soul, everyone dreamed of fleeing to better shores. The United States was always the dream, and at the sight of her– of this majestic statue– they would become speechless with emotion.

This statue marked their new beginning. Their chance to start over at this place where everyone said freedom and hope were ripe.

Lady Liberty was a gift from the French in the late 1800’s, designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel. The robed woman represents the Roman goddess Libertas, carrying a tablet on one hand inscribed with the date of the American Declaration of Independence. On her other hand is a torch raised up high to light the path to freedom. The torch is also a symbol of enlightenment.

Lady Liberty wears a 7-point crown on her head to represent the 7 seas and 7 continents, because freedom is and should be a universal concept. At her feet, though it’s hard to see, are broken chains that symbolise her freedom from bondage. The way her feet are positioned is also important to note, for instead of standing still she is actually moving forward.

The island itself is quite small, but since we arrived early and it was fairly empty at the time, it was a lovely place for just walking around. The weather was perfect too, though I wish there were more clouds so the pictures could’ve been nicer. 🙂

Left with nothing else to do, my Dad and I decided to catch the ferry to Ellis Island. This is the place where I was expecting to spend a bit more time since there’s a museum here.

As we all know, the United States is home to such an astounding mixture of races it’s like a world of its own already. Right here is where we get an idea of how that came to be.

From 1892 to 1954, more than 12 million people entered the United States through the Ellis Island Immigration Center. This place was the first point of entry for most immigrants, so much so that they had to expand this area by reclaiming more land during the 1900s.

Once the boats docked, immigrants would climb into the Great Hall for processing. First they would be inspected by doctors for any signs of mental and health problems. Those with visible problems or contagious diseases were immediately sent back or held at the island’s hospital facility. Sadly, over 3,000 people died while being held in the hospital.

In most cases, the doctors would mark the immigrants with chalk should they have any other less pressing health issues. Those who get cleared by the doctors were passed on to government officers tasked to check immigrant documents.

Officers would ask the immigrants basic questions such as name and occupation. They also asked how much money each person carried so that the officers could determine whether they would be able to support themselves in their new life in America. At the time, $18 to $25 (equivalent to around $600 in the present time) was enough to get a nod of approval.

They also determined whether a person was fit to work, or if they were just going to end up as extra responsibility for the government. Of course, those found with a criminal background were automatically sent back to their country of origin.

Despite continuing to process immigrants, Ellis Island became primarily a detention and deportation center in 1924. It even became a detention center for prisoners of war and enemy soldiers, as well as people who were identified as spies. Radicals were also detained at Ellis Island pending their deportation, but apart from that, American soldiers still used this place as a returning point for their own wounded-at-war.

Barring all the enemy aliens that somehow found their way to the US, it’s interesting to note that only a mere 2% of immigrants were denied admission to America. Being strict about who you give citizenship to is I think quite normal for any country. Despite the fact that everyone just wants a good place to belong to, the government also has the responsibility to protect the people that are already part of their community.

In the present time, here’s what becoming a citizen of America looks like:

One of my favourite things about this museum– aside from getting to learn all the interesting stuff– is that they have an Immigrant Search section where a lot of people come to find their roots. Information like name and date of arrival, as well as country of origin, are all in these terminals. Currently, over 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry to immigrants that first passed through Ellis Island before finally settling to different places in the United States.

After my visit here, I have a tiny idea of how profound the feeling must’ve been for all these people who braved the waters in search for greener pastures. The sight of Lady Liberty must’ve felt like a rebirth of sorts. But as the stories in the Immigrant Museum on Ellis Island did prove, coming to America wasn’t always as easy as they hoped. Still, many people did get to build a new life here.

At the very least, they’ve given their descendants a better shot at living life. Many immigrants hailed from then-oppressive countries after all, and just what exactly that torch-bearing lady meant to these people, what the taste of freedom meant… I cannot even begin to imagine.

As we wrapped up our trip to these two islands, I was left in quiet contemplation on the way back to Manhattan. It was a sobering moment of appreciation for all the struggles that our forefathers went through to allow us to live the way we do now. In my case, although my grandfather didn’t set sail for America, he did leave China for what he thought was a better place to live in.

Ironically, this is also the place where he got stabbed to death by a thief. But you know what? My grandfather protected his children in his life and until his last breath, and he worked hard to keep his household running. My Dad didn’t grow up knowing his father, but I feel like he gets his hardworking genes from his old man nonetheless.

And while I can’t say that the Philippines is all that my grandfather expected it would be when he came here, I think the hardships he went through to set his foundations in a foreign place is not all that different from what these people went through when they came to America.

And that’s why, as descendants, I think it is only right that we deem our life, and all that we currently have, as precious. Let us not waste all their blood, sweat, and tears.


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