The Reunion Tour, Day 8: A full day in NYC and a late-night bar emergency


After late night drinks with Yoni last night, I managed to wake up at the reasonable hour of 8:45am. Maybe it was my 6-hour nap in the middle of the day yesterday, or it was the motivation to join a hostel-hosted walking tour of the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem at 9:30am.

Now, I know that I am biased as a volunteer at the Chicago HI hostel, but the awesome things about HI hostels is that their main goal is to promote "a greater understanding of people, places, and cultures for a more tolerant world." This means all the HI hostels host events and activities for you to learn about the area in which you are staying, as well as meet others from your hostel. After all, that's what hostel life is all about...meeting people from around the world. Yesterday I signed up for a walking tour of Harlem, which unfortunately was going to cost $15 (psst...all the walking tours/events/activities at the Chicago HI hostel are FREE), but I was willing to get up early to do it. Plus, when I spoke to the front desk staff yesterday, they said it would be FOUR hours long. I'd dip out early if necessary, as I had plans to meet Mihaela for lunch.

I got dressed and headed downstairs to double check the time of the tour, only to find that it was cancelled. Ugh I could have gotten more sleep! I look at other tour offerings and there's Bob's "ALL OF NYC" tour that's only 13 hours long. I ask the front desk staff if it's a joke. No, really, it's 13 hours long, because he takes you to literally every single tourist site on the island of Manhattan. Okay, then, sounds like I gotta find another option for my morning.

I grab my free breakfast at the cafe consisting of banana, tea, and cereal, and get on my tablet to see what free tour options exist online. It's NYC, so there's gotta be something. Meanwhile, some hippie-ish 20-something dude asks the entire cafe if they want to play pool with him. Bystander behavior kicks in and no one responds, and then he approaches each person individually. No, sorry, dude.

I quickly find a tour by Free Tours By Foot, and it also happens to be for Harlem. This one is a manageable 2 hours. SCORE! Meanwhile, pool-partner-seeker is on his phone talking to someone quite loudly about coming to NYC. "Dude, you GOTTA come here. Like, seriously, this is where it's all happening. This is where you have to be." I feel like someone stole this guy from a 1990's era drama about making your dreams come true in the Big Apple.

I have to book it out of the hostel as the tour begins in Harlem in approximately 15 minutes, so I grab my bag and head to the tour meeting point.

The Harlem I saw on the tour was old, but charming. There were beautiful murals completed for and by the black community about famous figures from the neighborhood as well as a "Know Your Rights" mural explaining the steps you need to know if you've been arrested. Our guide explained how Harlem has always been evolving since the Dutch colonized New York, and he wouldn't be surprised if, in ten years, there is a strip mall down the main boulevard with chain stores. He explained that a different group always moves in, pushing out the previous group, whether it be Native Americans, wealthy Dutch colonists, Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, Blacks and more. Here are some interesting things I learned on my tour:
  • Bronx was originally Broncks, named after the first European settler in the area. 
  • After WWII, jazz groups stripped down to the bare minimum ensemble, as sheet music was difficult to come by due to supply shortages. Therefore, they could only afford a few sheets, thus, trios and quartets became the norm.
  • Brownstone buildings became popular in an era where the streets were dirty, so it made more sense to have an extra few steps to walk up before entering the home, in order to brush off the mud and other gross things you may have been carrying on your shoes. 
  • Astor Row has the only buildings in Manhattan with a front porch. Each building is worth between $8-12 million dollars. 
  • Disney was the reason for the boost in tourism in the early 1990s, as they opened up Viacom offices in Times Square and worked alongside Mayor Giuliani to rebuild the area to become a tourist mecca. 
  • Hotel Teresa was the first integrated hotel in NYC. Fidel Castro once stayed there.
  • The Apollo theater was originally a burlesque theatre. They host amateur nights, which is where Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix (as part of the backing band for Little Richard), Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and more got their big break.
After the tour I head off to meet with Mihaela. You'll remember her as one of my travel companions on the Transsiberian tour I took with the Monsoon Diaries back in January of this year. Our meeting spot is in East Village, at Ippudo NY, a ramen restaurant. Mihaela tells me this place is normally packed with a line out the door, but lucky us, we got a table right away. We both get the lunch special, which is ramen and an appetizer bowl of chicken and rice with a mayo sauce that sounds disgusting but is actually tastebud heaven. I wanted 15 chicken bowls and couldn't care less about the ramen, to be honest. 

It was nice seeing Mihaela again to talk about love, life and travel, and to hear her uninhibited laughter at all of my stupid jokes. After eating, we walked to her class on the NYU campus, and we had our heartfelt goodbyes. I walked to the nearby park where some street performers were breakdancing and jumping over people and doing general acrobatics until I realized I never got a photo with Mihaela. I've been really bad at that this trip. Luckily, she just had to pop in for a quick quiz and she met up with me afterwards for our obligatory photo, THEN we said our real goodbyes. 

Next up was my meetup with Remi, one of about a dozen since we met last year on the Central Asia trip I did through the Monsoon Diaries. I walked west to Chelsea, the neighborhood where she works. We met up at Vita, a vegan restaurant that Remi apparently frequents so much that she received a warm welcome upon entering the tiny place. I thought Remi may have known the owner from some outside activity, but no, this was a friendship based purely on returning to the restaurant day in and day out. 

We split a blueberry lemon cake which was about 8 layers and covered in fresh blueberries and cream. Despite having eaten my weight in rice a mere 2 hours ago, this was so light that I ate practically the entire thing. 

Remi showed me around her offices and I didn't forget to snap a photo of us together this time. We got a nice awkward photo on her office couch before I left her to her patient and returned to my hostel.

In my hostel, while lounging on the couch in the common room, I met a young Australian traveler who was just on his way back home after spending a month in the US and Canada. He removed his shoes and his feet smelled disgusting, but he was a nice person to chat with for a few minutes. He'd come to the USA because he had an "I-don't-know-what-we-are" relationship with some girl on the east coast, and as tales like this often pan out, she was weird/it didn't work out and he scrapped those plans with her to then travel to NYC and other cities on the east coast.

He had only a small backpack and a large camping backpack, and he was showing me the gifts he'd bought for his family back home. For himself, he'd purchased a flat-brimmed hat from some fancy store in Manhattan, which was a personal splurge. For his sister, he bought a MAC lipstick, because while they have it back home in Australia, it's far more expensive. When I hear about people bringing things back from the United States that are hard to come by, I always think of the Derek and the Dominoes song "Bell Bottom Blues," which Eric Clapton wrote for his crush Pattie Boyd back in the UK, who'd asked him to bring back denim bell bottoms from the USA during one of his trips. Granted, this Aussie man's story wasn't a love one, but travel always has that sort of romance, doesn't it?

He packed up his things and asked me if I wanted to take his US plug adapter. As someone whose electronics already have the US plug, this is of no use to me, so he instead donates it to the hostel. He grabs his bags and tells me he's off to the airport for the long journey home.

I get in touch with Remi and at the last minute, I'm able to make plans to meet her for dinner in Chelsea. I'm off again to take the trains to meet her and her friend Beatriz. We head to Chelsea Bell, a hip gastro-pub that happens to be in the middle of trivia night until...

The MC stops reading questions abruptly and we're not sure what's happening, but a waitress runs to the front door and exits, pushing the door shut from the outside. Meanwhile, other waiters and bar staff are grabbing at some bar patron who is bleeding from the nose and acting very drunk, rushing to the door. We hear the bartender yell "DON'T LET HER LEAVE" and they wrestle her to the ground by the front door until an ambulance arrives, and paramedics come in to talk to her. Someone at the table beside us tells us that she had a seizure at the bar and slammed her head on the table, causing her nose to bleed, and the bar staff is trying to keep her around until the paramedics arrived. It was very fast, confusing, and strange.

Once things calmed down, the MC continued trivia, I ate my curry chicken pot pie, and Remi, Beatriz and I enjoyed each others company until it was getting late and I headed back to the hostel for a good night's rest before my 11am train to Philadelphia tomorrow.