I was on a grey, early morning bus from Canberra this weekend, staring at the confirmation email from the AirBNB accommodation that I’d booked for New York, and for the first time since winning this grant I felt a flutter of trepidation, instead of overwhelming, beaming, Labrador-chasing-a-ball-made-of-meat excitement. I was starting to understand that my whole plan of appearing in a flash of light and cloud of brimstone directly out of the internet and into the lives and homes of people all around the world who I only knew as lines of text in chat programs and forums, meant that I’d be doing a lot of meeting new people and socialising. In fact, it’s kind of the crux of the entire project.
But the night before at a writers festival in Canberra, something I’d done to my body, perhaps something I’d eaten or the midday beer I’d drunk had triggered one of my many horrifying ailments and I started to feel like crap. One of the potential names that I have for my inevitable memoir is ‘The Life and Times of a Medically Weak Piss-Baby’, because while I like to think of myself as an energetic, happy-go-lucky go-getter, I’m usually someone who is eating plain oats because my stomach ulcer has flared up, or is sticking their shingle-ridden leg out the tent flap so the breeze can blow on it, or is massively grumpy because of my iron deficiency. So surrounded by happy writing festival crowds and cool friends, I slunk back to my hotel room at about 10pm and went to sleep. I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d deal with a month in the US on my own, when a single night in Canberra had defeated me.
After an hour of listening to sad bearded men sing about the winter, the girl sitting next to me on the coach got up and had a word with the bus driver. When she came back, she told me had asked him to turn down the air-conditioning, which was somewhere near sub-zero levels. I smiled politely, but didn’t really take out my headphones or close my book – my dad, a frequent intercontinental plane traveller, had raised me on horror stories of being stuck talking to boring and/or insane people for hours. But then she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: she asked me about the book I was reading.
What followed was a couple of hours of brilliant conversation – the subject got around to travel, and she told me about all the places she had travelled on her own. She was not only enthused, but hopeful about it all – she told me she travelled by believing in the best from humanity. I must have looked pretty shocked and sceptical, because I tend to believe the majority of humanity are sewer people, with the kind of habits and patterns that you get from wallowing around in the sewer. But she told me about being stranded on a train station overnight with meth-heads in Germany and eventually making friends with a whole bunch of homeless people who she shared her coffee with. She told me about missing her flight in Rome and some rich businessman showing her around the city in his Lamborghini – a story which could sound super sleazy, but I don’t think actually was?
Her version of how to travel alone wasn’t even the thing that made me feel better, it was actually the experience of sitting and chatting with her and enjoying meeting a new person. I think sometimes I underestimate myself, and even if my body is falling apart, there isn’t any pressure on me to hit this experience with the energy of ten thousand tigers. I can only hit it with the energy of one thin sickly man, because that’s all I have. So I can look after myself, and give myself realistic expectations and goals, and still be excited and enthused and slightly scared, but in a thrilled way, and not put pressure on myself to meet every single person and party every night and eat all the bagels, I dunno. I’m excited again.