I woke up in New York in a humid hostel. My head was throbbing and the enthusiastic buzz of the air-conditioner was killing me. I was a few days into my solo trip abroad, a decision that I made nervously on the cusp of a career change. I needed to clear my head, have some time to myself and work out this thing called my life. I’d phoned a travel agent after work one night, asked him to book flights to somewhere warm and fashion-friendly. Boom. New York.
I wanted to make the most of my time abroad, so despite my severe hangover I stumbled out of my room in search of a big New Yorker breakfast.
A piercing accent stabbed my brain. At first I was offended, but then I quickly realised the guy walking around yelling randomly shared my accent. I blushed recognizing what I must sound like. I then felt an affinity with the owner of that voice. Hearing a familiar accent in a land of strangers was somehow homely, and it felt wrong to ignore it
“Are you looking for Charlie?” I asked. Wow, Candice, smart observation…
“Yeah, I know him, we used to work together. Our yacht just docked in New York and he is meant to be around.” Two Aussies in tank tops and boardies explained how they were meant to meet with a guy called Charlie. They worked on a party boat and travelled the world tax-free, as you do. As Charlie was a no-show we thought we’d grab breakkie together – no, stuff it, grab a drink. No better way to get over a hangover than with another drink. We bonded over drinks and giggles. Then we decided to check out Brooklyn together with no idea how we would get there.
The boys were being chicken, so I took the plunge and asked a random stranger for directions. Turns out he was the right person to ask. This stereotypically American stranger, in his backwards cap and faded, ill-fitting jeans, didn’t say much. Just a smile from one corner of his mouth and an offer to take us to Brooklyn. It seemed too good to be true. My cautious mother’s voice rang in my ears – he was a stranger after all. But I had two built Aussie blokes with me, who quite frankly were more than a match for the narrow frame of the New Yorker. Besides, I was travelling and it was time to let my usual cautious side go. So off we went with the American. Us Aussies sat awkwardly on the train, exchanging OMG-is-he-going-to-kill-us glances. You see, this guy was getting more and more weird. His jokes were off-taste and sitting next to him we could smell a toxic mix of chemicals on his clothing. But on we went.
We got off the train, followed him through some streets, with no idea where we were going. After a while of nervous laughing at his not-so-funny jokes my nerves got the better of me.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
Then came the serial killer line, “Oh, I thought we would go to my place first. Just a short stop…”
I could tell that even my muscly Aussie friends were freaking out. What were we doing?? Strangely though, it felt rude to bail. Sure, he may kill us, but he was also being very polite in going out of his way to help us. Maybe we were being up tight. Maybe not…
His pokey apartment was thick with illicit smoke and a strong stench of must. A large pot of homemade alcohol was brewing on the stove. Two random space-cadet housemates blended in with the furniture. There were mattresses on the floor and a weird mangy cat. He offered us a non-tobacco cigarette. We awkwardly declined. It was uncomfortable. I was keen to leave.
But sometimes you just have to stick it out, and that mix of curiosity to see where it ended up, as well as the subliminal peer pressure to not be the chicken of the group made me stay on. That’s the beauty of travel. It’s an excuse to be someone else and live literally and figuratively outside your borders. I’m glad I did.
As we made our way past the smelly cat and down the musty stairs, I again enquired, “Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise.”
We walked in silence, my new Aussie friends and I exchanging half-laughing half-petrified looks of disbelief.
We arrived at a rusty corrugated iron shed. The American pushed in one place and revealed that there was a door. We had to duck to enter, minding the rusty corners. Inside we were alone in darkness. Silence. What had I done? I was going to be on the news – headline: “Naïve Aussie girl murdered in Brooklyn”. But then suddenly the space filled with light. The American had pushed back a heavy curtain revealing a secret and incredibly busy restaurant.
“Eat, order drinks, go crazy! My uncle owns the place. He’ll look after you. I’ve got to go somewhere but I’ll be back soon to collect you.”
So what else could we do but follow his extremely generous suggestion. The mix of excitement, curiosity and fear for our lives was dangerous yet appealing. Sure, we could run off but where to? The many twists and turns it had taken us to get there had left us disoriented. Plus, the drinks were going down ridiculously well, calming our nerves as well as my hangover.
Suddenly the crazy American was back and we were off again in a much more relaxed and jolly state. By this stage I was besties with my Aussie mates. So the journey continued, this time to his work. Our mate was still reeking of naughty substances so I was curious what exactly ‘work’ was. But he had shown generosity and I was willing to find out.
Another dodgy building stood before us. Grey. Broken windows. Solemn. Yep, I was pretty sure we were accompanying him on a drug deal. Welcome to the US of A!
Next thing I know we were introduced to two girls who were confident, not sober and very entertaining. We followed them into a small room. Flick. The lights went on and once again what was revealed wasn’t what we expected. An impressive radio studio lay before us, and we were their on-air guests, entertaining a range of callers with our funny Aussie accents and tales of home.
Travelling alone and the array of strangers I met along the way opened my heart and eyes to a new way of seeing and living. I had taken risks. I had trusted. I had lived.
When I returned home I immediately quit my job. My trip made me realise life is meant to be an adventure, and too precious to stay in a job you don’t adore.