9 Survival Tips New York City Stuffed in My Backpack
“Despite the reputation, I find New Yorkers to be pretty cruisy.”
My tilted head and single raised eyebrow silently requested my student to explain his Australian slang. Cruisy?
“Yeah, you guys are pretty chill travelers.” It must be because I just taught him yoga, I thought, he’s doing the compassion thing. While the rest of the conversation about our time in India, the other countries we’ve traveled to, and the people we’ve met is rather hazy, this accidental compliment stuck with me.
While this isn’t the first word I would use to describe us New Yorkers, (can’t-be-bothered and blunt are closer to what I had in mind), I can understand the comment. Most of us use disgustingly profane language for no particularly good reason, we walk as if there is a constant fire burning behind us, it’s never too cold to open your window and flip the bird during road rage, and we never hold doors for each other. However, I’ll admit there are a few things about being accustomed to city life that can make us rather cruisy in our travels.
After over a quarter of a century of life in the concrete jungle, these survival tips inevitably snuck into my backpack before hitting the road:
1. High tolerance for chaos
Traffic. Horns. People shouting. Garbage reeking. Performers performing. People pushing. Little brats crying. Moms screaming. Jackhammers roaring. Ambulances blaring. Pandemonium.
I’m convinced that New York is the birthplace of Murphy’s law — anything that can go wrong will go wrong. This goes for everything: public transit delays, streets closed for construction, parades for holidays and celebrations you never knew existed, your favorite restaurant is inaccessible because there’s a protest outside — there is always something.
I’m used to having the not-updated-since-1990 automated voice droning “We are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us. Thank you for your patience” as my regular morning soundtrack, for years. So I felt right at home across the globe when my public bus was delayed for three hours because of a Himalayan landslide.
The same tolerance goes for the disorder of a foreign city whose organization may not be like that of the typical west. In New York, you don’t have time to pick a fight with the taxi driver that almost wiped you off that street corner, because you have a meeting in five minutes. On the road, you may have time, but the unresponsive attitude sticks.
2. Pack for EVERYTHING
New York isn’t Los Angeles, or any other suburban town, where we have the luxury of throwing our entire lives into our car and treating it as a moving house. Instead, before you leave in the morning you better think long and hard about every single business meeting, social gathering, and any other mischief you might possibly get into. On a typical day, I have work clothes, workout clothes, going out clothes, workout shoes, going out shoes, electronics along with a tangled mess of chargers of all sorts, books for waiting, and anything else that may prove beneficial in preparation for the unexpected madness that ensues due to the chaos mentioned in #1… all jammed in my tote. We just always seem to be lugging around a bunch of shit.
When you’re out exploring during your travels, you’re less likely to stop back at your hotel or hostel in the middle of the day. Hone your catch-all packing skills ASAP and you’ll be less flustered throughout the day and less of a complainer about your heavy bag.
3. Street smarts
During his six months in India, my friend managed to get his cellphone stolen not once, not twice, but THREE times. Just… how?! He wasn’t from New York, obviously. As New Yorkers, we’re trained to always watch our bags, be on the lookout for the next psycho on the loose, don’t smile at the guy who whistles at you, and know that anyone who does smile is a con artist. We also realize that any purse or briefcase left behind is a bomb and if anyone seems too generous, they’re swindling you. Okay, I’m kidding (not really). This is extreme, but even a small dose of this skepticism can keep you out of easily avoidable situations abroad, like having your phone stolen three times. This awareness also means that when a shop owner tries to overcharge me because I’m foreign, I don’t freak out or take it personally. A shrug of the shoulders and a mental reminder that we all rip off tourists (hello, midtown Manhattan) makes it more bearable.
4. Cultural sensitivity and appreciation
I’ve always thought it was really interesting that I could stand on the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street inhaling a sandwich just purchased from a French restaurant, as I hear a father scold his child in Spanish, see a woman clad in traditional Indian dress, and feel the aroma from a Greek gyro food stand hit my nose… all in the very same second. In New York, you never know where someone’s from, what language they speak, or what religion they practice. Needless to say, this awareness goes a long way in a foreign place. We get past the shocking, ‘weird’, uncomfortable, and different shenanigans more quickly and have the liberty to zoom into the culture itself.
5. If your two feet work properly, you walk.
It’s funny when my international or even just out-of-state friends visit New York and complain about having to walk 10 city blocks — “shouldn’t we just take a taxi?” Umm, no dude, we shouldn’t. We can spend that money on pizza when we’re drunk later, we’d take three times as long sitting in traffic, and Uber surge is about 5.7x right now… so, no. When you’re traveling, you usually don’t have a car, taking constant taxis is either a drain on your bank account or a sketchy scam, and places are much more charming when explored on foot anyway.
6. Personal space? What’s that?
If you live in New York and you can open your fridge and your kitchen cabinet at the same time without whacking them into each other — hell, if you even have a kitchen — you’ve made it. Whether it’s in someone’s shoebox — whoops, I mean apartment, on the subway, in an elevator, fighting over cubicles in an office (this is a real thing), or even walking down the street, we just accept having no space. I’ve kept calm on overpacked public transit in Delhi, saved tons of money by being okay with basic accommodation in Thailand, and have been more tolerant of cultures whose norm is to converse a foot away from my face… all thanks to being crushed and trampled all my life in New York City.
When I laugh at the non-New York friends for #5, they laugh back at me when I Google how to get to another part of the city. “Haven’t you lived here all your life? Don’t you know how to get there?” What people don’t understand is just how expansive and intricate the city really is. And just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, you can refer back to #1 for all the things Google can’t predict. Living in New York may not have made me a direction wizard (anyone who knows me knows I am a disaster in this department), but it has built my patience for being lost in foreign places, to say the least.
8. Decision making
New Yorkers are constantly choosing from a ridiculous amount of options all the time — where to eat lunch (fun fact: according to UberFacts, you can eat at a different place every day for 54 years without ever repeating), which train to take, which type of entertainment you want to spend your money on, and the best way to make your free time less miserable than work. I know I can’t do everything. I will die before I experience even a tenth of all there is in New York. When I applied this sense of acceptance to choosing countries for my first backpacking trip, it made things less overwhelming and more digestible.
There are few places on this earth as fast-paced as New York. So while some might argue the opposite (picture bratty American tourists snapping their fingers at a super chill waiter in Jamaica), it’s quite refreshing to me that everywhere else I go is slower paced than NYC. Growing up in the madhouse has caused me to appreciate the opposite end of the spectrum, not to be frustrated by it. When I found out it was culturally acceptable to be 30 minutes late for a social event in Costa Rica, I pretty much took advantage of that every single time.
Flying over Manhattan into JFK airport upon my return from Thailand the other night, the speakers started blaring a song I’ve heard ad nauseam since I was a child: Sinatra’s New York, New York. I rolled my eyes and thought: are they really playing this right now? But then again, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a tinge of pride to be a native.