Sometimes I wonder how I survived my 20s at all. It’s not like I’m a big risk taker or anything, but my naiveite and general unawareness have left me in some questionable situations. I have walked into stranger’s homes without any exit plan or ability to defend myself. There was also the time I got into a strange man’s car because he offered me a hot meal. I have allowed myself to be guided by an instinct that, when compared to personal safety, perhaps I trust too much. Certainly, my instincts have been honed over the years, and they have so far been reliable. But when I was 19 and went abroad for the first time, I had nothing in the way of life skills, travel skills or instinct to guide me.
The decision to travel was itself a questionable one. Acting school had yet to make me rich and famous and, since I couldn’t afford to eat or pay rent, I had no other choice but to move in with my more-or-less estranged father. So of course I decided it would be a marvellous idea to traipse off to New York City for a month over Christmas.
It’s not like I was completely without a plan. The idea was to crash with a friend – and her parents – who lived in Yonkers. That was the extent of the plan. I wouldn’t have even had a guidebook if my mom hadn’t bought me one before I left. Perhaps it wasn’t terribly well-thought-out, but I had a free place to stay and a local who could show me the ropes.
Caveat: Digital cameras weren’t a thing yet when I was on this trip. As such, the photos included here look like they are photographs of photographs from an old scrapbook – because they are.
And then my friend called a week before my departure to inform me her mother had cancer and it wasn’t a great time for house guests.
What did I do with this sudden change of plans? Did I ask my friend if she knew anyone who could put me up for a few nights? Did I try to find an affordable hostel? Did I reassess the cost of accommodation, cut my losses, and cancel the trip? Nope. It never even occurred to me that travelling to NYC over Christmas might be a huge financial hit for someone who was literally stealing food from the communal lunch room at school.
Keep in mind as well, that this was before the internet was the ubiquitous force it is today. I didn’t even own a computer (nor would I for years to come). Budget-friendly, alternative resources like Couchsurfing and Airbnb were still a long ways off.
So I followed my friend’s recommendation about a motel near her place – a motel which didn’t take reservations. A motel, as it turned out, that rented by the hour, had pubic hairs on the walls and cigarette burns on the sheets, and where guests (if that term could even be used in such an establishment) weren’t allowed to use the phone in the room to make outgoing calls.
But I didn’t know this yet. Hell, I didn’t even know where Yonkers was. After my plane landed, I discovered it was a $70 cab ride from JFK (and this was 20 years ago too, remember). The driver, not-so-politely, also taught me that one is expected to tip their driver. Who knew? I had never been in a taxi in my life!
And that was how I came to arrive at a seedy motel in the middle of the night. I was literally lost in Yonkers. It was apparent to me by this point, that things were not falling into place the way I expected. One thing was for sure, this motel could absolutely not be my home for the next month.
So I did what any respectable and independent 19 year-old would do – I called my mom from a pay phone and cried. I stayed up all night smoking cigarettes to stave off the hunger pangs in my stomach – the motel definitely did not have a restaurant – and watching late-night television because I was afraid to fall asleep.
Not that I was completely useless. With my trusty guidebook in hand, I once again braved the walk outside of my dank room to the even danker looking public telephones. “Is it ok that the hotel is in New York?” the helpful lady taking my reservation asked. “Um…yeah, of course. That’s where I am isn’t it?” I thought.
I survived the night and early the next morning, my friend’s father graciously offered me a ride to the train station so I could make my way, finally, to Manhattan. I hopped in a taxi (remembering to tip this time), gave the driver the address of the hotel, and let myself relax. Everything was going to be ok.
Except it wasn’t. The address was closer to the projects than it was to anything resembling a Holiday Inn. Turns out, when the nice lady asked me if it was ok that the hotel was in New York, she was referring to Long Island. This was the point at which I gave up. I flagged down another taxi and told the driver to take me to any hotel in Midtown. I was soon to find out that a hotel in this neighbourhood would come with a price tag of over $300 a night.
The lovely staff at the fancy Coast Plaza were hesitant to rent a room to a bedraggled 19 year-old girl who reeked of cigarettes and looked like she had spent the last few nights sleeping on a park bench. But, in the end, they decided my traveller’s cheques were as good as anyone else’s money and, as long as I paid up front, they would be happy enough to have me as their guest.
Finding cheaper accommodation was still a priority. Sadly, being only a few days from Christmas, all of the hostels were fully booked. If I had looked harder, it’s possible I could have found something at least cheaper than the wads of cash I was putting out each night at the Coast Plaza. But instead, I went sightseeing and 5 days later, I was out of money. After the cost of changing my plane ticket, I almost didn’t make it across the border because I didn’t have any money left to pay the duty on the Furby (and other stuff) I had bought. Fortunately, my acrobatic credit card stretched a bit further and the Canadian airport welcomed me home.
I learned a lot of lessons on that trip. I learned them so hard, it now takes me hours – nay, days, weeks and months – to prep for a trip. I travel with a budget so strict, it makes my wife dread planning holidays. Perhaps, one day, my youthful spontaneity will return to me. Then again, if I’m the kind of person who thinks purchasing a talking toy is a necessity, perhaps it’s for the best if it doesn’t.
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