The Best Places to Not Visit in New York

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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.

 

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Photo of New York by Jerry Ferguson

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6 thoughts on “The Best Places to Not Visit in New York”

  1. Interesting commentary on your trip. Perhaps some vacations are not memorable because we try to do too much? My wife and I spent three days in NYC, although the only reason we were there was to attend one particular opera performance. Other than that, we spent half a day at MOMA, took a three-hour tour of the NY Public Library, watched a film about The Beatles our second evening there, and walked along the Highline. Eminently memorable.

    1. Maybe it’s the way my brain works. We also went to the highline etc but none of it really stuck out to me. I guess I’m not excited too much by things I already know about or can picture in my head. The unexpected excites me more.

      When we went it was just after Hurricane Sandy, we had booked to visit the Statue of Liberty (which had only recently reopened) but when we arrived on the day we realised you couldn’t see the statue as Sandy had destroyed the dock for boats onto Liberty Island.

      Instead of refunding our tickets we were given tickets for a harbor tour which we would never have done normally, but which was a nice unexpected surprise and memorable!

  2. I loved this. It is so true, when I think about it, that sometimes the most memorable experiences are far from what one would seek or expect. Mind you, sometimes they come as a bonus. I loved every minute of our Namibian adventure of many years ago – and we got adopted by a cat into the bargain!

    1. I imagine going to Namibian would be such a unique and unexpected experience because it’s not a place people really know. Everybody knows New York so everybody knows all the places they’ll go before they even arrive, which is strange. Why bother to go to places which can’t really surprise you?

      By the way, thanks for your comments. You’re possibly the biggest (or only) regular commentor on my blog and it helps sometimes to know that at least one person will completely read what I’ve written!

  3. An interesting read and take on travel. It’s often the small details or the people that I remember rather than the “tour sights” and “must see” places. For me its the people that make a place and my response to the place and as such my memories of it.
    Having said that I’ll just go and contradict myself by recounting my memory of seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time, now that was a taker-of-breath. All the images I’d ever seen still weren’t able to capture the emotion on seeing it for the first time – the sheer scale, the detail, the planning, the enormity.

    1. Actually, I agree, sometimes when we go to a place it completely goes above and beyond what we were expecting. A few times I’ve been completely blown away by places (usually naturally beautiful ones) where I believe the place itself can’t really be captured in pictures. New York is much how I imagined it, the Grand Canyon on the other hand was like nothing I could imagine.

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