The main aim of all travel is to have a good experience. Something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.
When we travel we go to great lengths to produce a memorable experience for ourselves. Spend bags of money trying to create the perfect moment or memory. The ironic thing is that years later the things we remember aren’t what we originally set out to see.
A few winters ago, my girlfriend and I visited New York City. If you ask me what I remember from that time then I’d have to be truthful and say not a lot. My memories are hazy, made up of small seemingly meaningless images or moments that seem unconnected by any theme. The only connecting factor is that they happened in New York.
One afternoon we wandered aimlessly around with hungry bellies. We’d spent all day walking around New York without eating and the hunger was overpowering. We searched for somewhere, anywhere to eat. Our search led us down a dark alley where we found a tiny Mexican restaurant filled with hipsters.
The room was so thin that people were seated almost directly back to back. Everybody was pushed in next to each other, with personal space an afterthought. Our table sat between a coat rack and the bathroom door, people pushed by us quickly when they needed to go – either to the toilet or for their jacket.
Most of my memory of that restaurant is hazy. There’s so much I don’t remember. What the waitress looked like. Where it was located. What drinks we had. What was on the walls. I can see the shape of the room but don’t remember the plates or the cutlery.
The only thing that vividly sticks in my mind was something we ate. A piece of corn. Now this wasn’t your normal corn cob, this was the tastiest corn cob in the world. Something I later discovered to be “elote”.
Elote is a Mexican corn on the cob, covered in chilli and cheese, slathered with lime and butter. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted before and each bite was delicious.
I don’t even remember what else we ate, but for some reason that corn will always stick in my mind. It’s one of the best memories I have of that trip. More important moments from those days are lost, yet that corn endures.
Before eating that corn though, I never anticipated that my memory of it would be of any importance. I guess that’s how most memories are, we never know an important event when it happens, we only notice their importance later with hindsight.
Maybe that memory of the corn is so clear in my mind because I always go back to it, cementing the image over and over. I imagine the crunch of the kernels against my teeth, the burn of the chilli on my lips and the tang of lime on my tongue. It becomes clearer in my mind each time I go back to it and each time I enjoy it even more.
This is my strongest memory of New York and it wasn’t even something I set out to find. When you pay for a trip to New York you know where you’re going to go and those are the places you’re sure you’ll remember. Yet when we go to a place, we already have an image of it in our mind, we already know what to expect.
We create a memory of our visit before we’ve even arrived. We picture Central Park or the Empire State Building and then when we visit all we can feel is a sense of having seen a place we already know. There’s nothing worth remembering because we’ve already created that place in our heads.
By going out and attempting to create memorable experiences and moments, we actually do the opposite. We prevent ourselves from having experiences because it makes our journey so predictable. The fun of travel is in the unexpected, in the moments that we don’t see coming.
On that same trip, my girlfriend and I went up to the top of the Rockerfeller Centre. We have pictures of it, proof that it happened, but I can’t remember it at all. We paid a ton of money to go up in the hope that we would have an amazing time but instead that memory has almost been wiped away from my mind. I never go back to it because it was just another dull tourist attraction that I could picture in my mind before going. It was an experience, but everything I already knew it would be. In the end it left no impression.
When I search my mind for the Rockfeller Centre, I’m instead taken to an old crowded subway car. I’m on the way into New York from the airport and it’s early in the morning. As the train stops at each station it begins to fill up more and more. Soon enough all of the seats are full, but still people keep coming.
Eventually an old woman hobbles onto the train and looks around helplessly. I stand up and wave her down to my own seat and she thanks me with a look of true gratitude on her face.
The woman starts to talk to me happily and asks if I’m going to the Rockfeller Centre. I say I probably will. She hands me a postcard with a photo taken in front of the building and explains to me what I’m looking at and what I can do there. We discuss my trip and what I might do. She pleasantly hopes that I have a good time there with my girlfriend.
At that exact moment, I was simply feeling awkward and trying to get out of the conversation with the old woman. Little did I know that I would infact visit the Rockerfeller Centre, completely forget my visit and yet still remember that small subway meeting vividly. Still remember that look of happiness on the woman’s face when I gave up my seat.
That whole trip to New York is made up of vivid memories which seem to be remembered for no reason I can fathom other than they were unexpected.
I don’t remember seeing the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. Yet, I remember a young black man trying to scam us near Central Park. I don’t remember the Museum of Modern Art or Times Square. However, I remember our tiny basement hotel room with an overly hot radiator. Every morning waking up with dry hands after dehydrating in the night.
For those forgotten places, I have photos. But those photos inspire little more than vague recognition. They mean nothing. They weren’t places that I experienced, just places I visited. Boxes to tick off on the list of “Best Things To Do In New York”.
What I remember most are the things that happened in between. Experiences I didn’t seek out. The places and people I stumbled upon by chance.
The things I never sought out, but that instead sought out me.
Photo of New York by Jerry Ferguson