I took my first solo trip in August 2015 at the age of 20. I stepped off of the plane in Los Angeles bleary eyed, poorly dressed and completely alone. When you travel alone there’s always this thought that maybe you forgot something. Despite planning, checking and rechecking every single little detail there has to be something you overlooked. I recalled my last trip to the USA when we had forgot to pay for Dad’s ESTA before departure. A mad rush ensued at the departure terminal, my Mom pulling her credit card out of her purse quicker than the attendant could say “there’s nothing we can do”. We ended up making our flight that day, and we had no issues on the other end. But since then the act of planning and checking has become something I am often far too concerned with.
As many Australian travellers would know, flying direct to LA is an assault on your circadian rhythm unlike any other. When departing from Brisbane, you generally leave at midday and arrive into LAX at 6am on the same day, travelling back in time during your flight. From the airline’s perspective this seems to be a great idea, you sleep on the plane and arrive fully rested at the start of your first day in America. However, sleeping on planes is an art form that I am not even close to mastering, I wouldn’t even consider myself an apprentice.
Of course I got no sleep the night before I flew out – what with nerves, excitement and anticipation all flying around my fishbowl of a brain?! By the time I actually got to LA it had been almost 24 hours without sleep. It goes without saying that I was not in the most ideal frame of mind as I began the customs process.
LAX has for quite some time now been equipped with auto-processing customs machines that scan your passport, ask you a few questions and then print you out a slip of paper to take to a customs officer. This was my first time using these machines and I was shocked and thrilled at how easy and quick the system was, there were hardly any lines at all! My thrill quickly turned to panic as my slip printed out with a big old X through my photo. I tried to look around to see if anyone else had received such a mark but to no avail. I continued to the customs officer directing people into various lines, she took one look at my slip and pointed me in a different direction to everybody else, a line with maybe 7 people in it and one customs officer doing the processing – this can’t be good.
Once I got to the front of the line I approached the officer with my heart in my throat, was I really about to be denied entry on my first ever solo trip? I would like to add that there is no particular reason I should ever be denied entry into the United States, I didn’t really have any reason to be nervous but when has that ever made a difference? The officer asked me the usual questions about my trip and previous ones, my plans for the US and what date I would be departing. After taking my fingerprints he sent me off on my way and told me to enjoy my stay. I had never intended on immigration being the most exhilarating part of my holiday.
As it turns out, immigration wasn’t the most exhilarating part of my holiday – being mugged at a Metro station in Hollywood later that day was. By the time I got to Hollywood from the airport, unpacked my bags and set out for the afternoon I had been without sleep for right around 30 hours. When you haven’t slept in that long it is almost as if you are no longer completely inside your own head. I was strolling Hollywood Blvd with the feeling of my eyes being further back in my skull than usual, as if I was looking from a distance at my own view. As a rookie traveller, I had taken quite a decent chunk of cash with me which I had luckily left in the hotel safe barely 10 minutes before descending into the Metro station on Hollywood/Western.
I would like to preface this by saying I don’t think I have ever told this story the same way twice. I was tired, hungry and pretty much out of it at the time of its occurence. For the uninitiated, LA Metro stations aren’t exactly the pinnacle of underground travel terminals. Dark, dusty and typically hot platforms with the stench of stale urine constantly on the nose. This particular station was completely empty save for me and one seemingly harmless gentlemen down the other end of the platform. The barely flickering monitor told me that the next train would be 14 minutes, enough time for me to gather my thoughts on the grimy steel bench on which I was seated. 14 minutes also happened to be ample time for the aforementioned harmless gentlemen to decide he needed my money more than I did.
I became aware a couple of minutes into my wait that my station buddy was pacing around his end of the platform, which is honestly nothing too out of the ordinary for Hollywood. It was once he started yelling incoherently towards my end of the platform and beginning his stumbling trek towards me that I thought maybe this situation isn’t one I want to be in. There was a staircase back to the real world in the middle of the platform, at this stage it seemed a genuine ‘Stairway To Heaven’. I made my way towards the stairs as the stranger made his way towards me, I knew that it was likely our paths would cross before I made it to the stairs, but my faith in other people led me to believe that his ramblings weren’t actually directed at me – maybe he just liked to talk loudly and stumble around.
I made it to the bottom of the stairs just as he made it to the side of them and thought that I had managed to escape, but unfortunately he reached through the bars to block my path with his arm, which had a switchblade firmly grasped at the end of it. I’m not actually sure if I’ve ever mentioned to Mom that he pulled a knife on me so if I haven’t I’m sorry Staz but it was for the best. Anyway, his speech became much more coherent and firm as he insisted I step back down on to the platform. I hadn’t spoken a single word at this point, I just followed his directions as he told me to show him my wallet and removed the 25 dollars I had in there. Once he had the money he looked me in the eyes and said “run”. I can almost swear a smile must have flickered across my face, surely this guy wasn’t so cliche as to tell me to run like some sort of movie bad guy, but we were in Hollywood after all.
I didn’t run – mostly because I don’t think I was physically capable at the time. My lack of sleep mixed with the insane amount of adrenaline rushing through my body allowed me to do nothing other than climb the stairs one at a time, shaking all the while. I made it back out into the sun, rudely cut off a man begging for money and made a call to my parents to inform them of what had happened. They were obviously very concerned, they were even more concerned when I went back to my apartment and fell asleep at 3pm becoming uncontactable on the other side of the planet for 9 hours. I woke to my hotel phone ringing with them on the other end, worried out of their minds thinking all sorts of things had gone wrong. But nothing had gone wrong, I’d had my initiation – I had learnt the world isn’t always friendly, strangers don’t always have your best interests at heart and that no matter how far away you are there are people that love you unconditionally.
I have always told these two stories quite gleefully, people love drama and these stories are the perfect beginning to any conversations I have about my travels. But as with anything that happens in life, these two experiences helped shaped the future of my travel. They turned me into a meticulous planner, someone who starts a daily budget more than a year out from a trip. They turned me into a vigilant traveller, the kind who has eyes on every person in a room the moment they step into it. They turned me into a free spirit, knowing that every situation could turn out good or bad and that ultimately we often have very little control over what happens. But most of all, these two stories helped create a burning passion for exploring, learning, leaving, coming back, meeting people, succeeding and failing. They created an insatiable thirst for knowledge, experiences and the culture of another city and its people. In the most cliche way possible they turned me into the person I am today and I wouldn’t have it any other way.