Inspired by Seth Kugel’s ‘Rediscovering Travel’
Whether it's going for that well-deserved holiday, studying abroad, or your career taking you elsewhere, the idea of travelling excites the majority. However, I question what it is about travelling that seems so liberating. When we travel, we tend to hit the hot spots, as we don't want to miss out on the must-sees right? What Trip Advisor, Expedia, Trivago and Yelp don’t mention are the unexpectables, finding a hidden bar, roaming down a random street or meeting someone along the way. You see, I don’t believe that it's the Eiffel Tower, the London Eye, The Empire State Building or the Burj Khalifa that will make the cities significant to me. Everyone goes to see the tourist attractions, but what makes your experience unique to you? These are the unexpectables you encounter. They create your memories, form your relationships and are what you take away from your travels.
In 2020, I was fortunate enough to spend time studying at The School of New York Times, Gap Year Programme in New York City. An opportunity I did not take lightly. Freshly 18, I travelled across the globe from my bubble in Auckland, New Zealand to ‘the city that never sleeps’. Surrounded by teachers, advisors, mentors and qualified professionals, it's safe to say I absorbed a great deal whilst studying and living in the hectic city. It was only when I came back home, that I was able to reflect and realise what I had truly learnt through my experiences. Yes, I went to school, and yes, I now know how to correctly construct a 36 hours piece, how to write a ‘vomit’ draft, or how the Me too Movement impacts the food industry. Pouting my way through my first few weeks back home, I looked back on my time living and studying in New York. However, when I think about the city, it isn’t the well-known Statue of Liberty, Central Park, museums, Rockefeller Centre or Empire State Building I think of. It was the people I missed, the faces that appeared when the city came to mind. I formed strong friendships with my fellow peers, we were inseparable, from dining at breakfast to sleepless late nights finishing off assignments together. Regardless of how far each student had travelled to be there, we lived as one harmonious family, even monopolising the building’s communal kitchen with our music and laughter.
It’s not the bright lights and billboards of Times Square I remember, but the madwoman bellowing out random noises whilst smacking her guitar for tips. Overwhelmed by a face full of smeared makeup and fake rapunzel length multi-coloured dreads, the woman was able to create a 20 feet open space diameter around her from the public.
It’s not the expensive urban restaurants I miss, but the friendly man who worked at the corner halal food stand day and night. My indecisive self could not choose between what I wanted from the variety of the stand, witnessing my struggle, the man began cooking and constructing, letting me try the different kinds of rice and sauces along the way. I opened my styrofoam container to find a mix of his bestsellers, I didn't need to choose, I had it all for the slim price of one. He was accommodating and kind, opposing the foolish idea that all New Yorkers are rude.
It’s not the food shops, cuisine or souvenir stores I recall from Chinatown, but the words of Gary Lum. His porcelain ware shop, Wing on Wo & Co, is the oldest store in Chinatown, of 95 years. I am forever grateful that I stumbled upon this little store of Gary’s because I spoke with him for over 45 minutes. It started off with the great history of the store and ended with his wise words on humanity and our future. Calm and content, I exited the store’s red door revitalized simply through conversation. It’s not the School of New York Times or the astounding 570 Lexington Avenue building I think of, but the teachers who helped me grow inside it. The programme manager of student life allowed us to feel a sense of safety and security in the madness of the city. He was the perfect, as he likes to put it ‘mama bear’ and would do anything for us. He exuberated care and kindness, with constant reassurance that he was there to talk to, from the best ice cream spot in Manhattan to personal anxietys. It wasn’t the structure of the building that was impressive but the immense support from those inside the building, who would happily give their time and guidance, even if it was just for a conversation.
It’s not the sardine tin of a subway I remember constantly taking, but the lighthearted and talented people that filled the carts with music and life. Local artists expressing their passion, displaying their art for all to enjoy; making that mundane ride to work just a bit more entertaining. From the giant cello to the hand-sized harmonica, you were always in for a musical surprise.
It’s not the hustle and bustle of diverse Queens I look back on, but the sweet young waitress who worked at Jackson Heights Peruvian restaurant ‘Riko’. Whilst exploring the neighbourhood, a friend and I wandered into the restaurant, empty and still. A waitress showed us to one of the many open tables. With much time to spare, we began to speak with her about her background and family. She was most pleased to share with us a traditional and beloved Peruvian drink, chicha Morada. Made from purple corn, the deep wine colour comes with a fruity, tangy, spiced note from the addition of ingredients like pineapple, apple, lime, cinnamon, and cloves. The bursts of sweetness and spice from the chunks of apples were an exciting surprise to find at the end of the drink. When going to pay, the waitress was adamant we didn’t, expressing that she was just proud to share her culture with us, sending us off with a warm smile and full belly.
It’s not the cherry blossoms, ice-skating rink or lakes of Central Park I think of, but the grinning faces of my friends playing football. First came the important decision of where to play, needing a prime space of lush green open land, hopefully with minimal holes for minimal injuries. Competitive yet playful, the gleeful faces, and perspiring bodies radiated pure enjoyment in the afternoon spring sun. It didn’t matter if you’d never kicked a ball before, it was just easy to have fun. The eagerness and excitement on the field sparked warm nostalgic memories for all.
I encourage you to allow these unexpectables to occur on your next trip, not see them as negatives, but as opportunities. Start a conversation with a local, roam down a random (but safe) street and don’t be so wrapped up in an agenda that doesn’t allow room for serendipity. By all means, visit the tourist attractions, but remember to make your experience unique, by allowing yourself to understand the people as well as the places you visit. I promise that you will come home having gained a lot more than looking at a few buildings like your friend on Instagram.