*Originally written and posted on www.CountriesAndCultures.com
Let me preface this post by saying that I never had any interest in visiting New York. Years ago, I remember thinking, ‘ugh, I have no desire to ever visit New York.’ Crowded streets, relentless noise, towering buildings caging me in…
With more travel experience, my perspective has changed enough to where a trip to New York suddenly held some appeal. With the promise of never ending rooftop bars and pizza, my two best friends and I eagerly booked our girls’ trip.
I’m sure the next few days will be filled with me writing about the different places we visited and putting up specific location reviews as well as a general commentary on our mini girls’ vacay. But for this post I really wanted to focus on describing how my travel experience from the past has shaped my perspective on travel in general and how that, in turn, dramatically changed my perception of New York City
Leading up to the trip I kept wondering, ‘After spending a year living in Madrid, how will I like the even more bustling city of New York? Will the ceaseless energy excite me or leave me exhausted and searching for a quiet escape? Will the stuffy subway suffocate me or remind me of my time in Spain?
I had a million questions and absolutely no expectations.
Each of us three girls were flying in from our respective cities so I found myself cruising into the JFK airport alone at 5:30 in the morning. With the oh-so-convenient Uber calling my name and almost no sleep from my red-eye flight, the temptation of a long ride where I could peacefully sleep was almost overwhelming. But there was just something in my head pushing me to kick off this trip as authentically as possible and embrace the New York City experience by taking the subway into Manhattan.
Wary of the hour and a half long ride and desperately hoping I had read the signs and was headed in the right direction, I wheeled my luggage onto the mostly empty Subway. As we quickly (and rather jarringly) moved along the tracks at 6:00 A.M. in the morning, each stop brought with it new passengers making their way into the city.
The beginning of the metro from the airport is actually outside. I appreciated the chance to view the surrounding area. Ready for gorgeous skylines and twinkling skyscrapers, my first view was of…..a cemetery. Crumbling tomb stones lay crowded next to each other in a dreary looking field of unkept grass. The faded rocks slowly led into a run-down neighborhood. Homes that were barely standing, backyards overflowing with broken bikes, decaying furniture, and broken windows.
What shocked me most was my reaction to this completely unglamorous, unapologetically real experience of the area.
A few years ago, I couldn’t even bring myself to play with the idea of a trip to New York City. Seeing a sight like this would have left me wondering why on earth I was here and wishing I could be on some luxurious beach with a mimosa in my hand. Sitting on the dirty subway bench would have disgusted me and being crowded in with so many people would have left me traumatized.
I’m pleased to say that I found myself bumping along that noisy, dirty, crowded subway thinking thoughts I never could have imagined would pass through my head just a few years ago.
These people sitting next to me weren’t simply faceless and nameless hot bodies pushing in all around me. I saw parents with their child’s sleepy head resting on their shoulder on the way to school, an old man solving his sudoku puzzle, a business man with his suit and shiny briefcase, the pastor working on his Sunday sermon, a postal worker, mechanic, nurse and others already sporting their work attire as they began their daily routines.
I saw the convergence of diversity and unity as all these people with different faces, different backgrounds and different goals came together.
The tomb stones and degenerating houses didn’t frighten me. It hit me that although the external picture of this area was both hideous and frightening, there were beautiful revelations just waiting to be discovered…..
They portray the life that some other, very real person is living. The house with half a wall missing could be the home of the person sitting next to me. The broken bike may belong to the child just across the way sleeping on his mother’s lap. The bleak cemetery is probably the resting place of many of these people’s friends and families and represents something special and unique to them. What appeared as a collapsing shed to me was the meaning of home to someone else.
The realization came over me that I no longer wanted to run from the ugly side of life simply because it was unpleasant. Riding along next to people I didn’t know and seeing the unfiltered picture of their reality was such an intimate experience.
With every ragged home I passed, I felt closer to these strangers who were unknowingly introducing me to pieces of their lives.
With my two bright orange suitcases, I was clearly an outsider in their private world. But I passed through it with eyes ready to observe, a mind racing to analyze and a heart full of respect.
Incredible how the difference between an Uber ride and the subway can be so much more than just the effects on your wallet. Undoubtedly, I will remember that subway ride for the rest of my life as the moment that I saw just how much my travel experience has changed me.
Travel can be so much more than simply pretty photos and delicious food. I’ve learned to look forward to what a destination can offer for entertainment as well as cultural, social and mental development. Ask yourself, what can I learn about myself and those around me from this visit? How can I use this situation to expand not just my waistband (yes I ate way too much pizza in New York) but my understanding of life as well?