I think there are choices in each of our lives that change the course of things to come. Those choices take on different guises and it seems like half the time we aren't even aware of how monumental they actually are. Some people have children, some people change careers, some people pick up their life and move somewhere else, some people get married. I chose to enter a travel writing contest that I read about on Facebook and was sure I wouldn't win.
Fast forward about six months. My essay, Beware of Bears, has inexplicably beaten out 4,500 other essays. I'm boarding a plane to Australia, and it's the beginning of a month-long departure—two weeks in Australia, and two additional weeks in New Zealand—that will pass in the blink of an eye. In the back of my mind I'm expecting the airline to tell me there's been some sort of mistake, to take back my ticket and send me home again. They don't. Twenty hours later I'm rolling my suitcase down a street in Melbourne, Australia searching for the Melbourne Central YHA in a continuous state of low-grade panic.
The other two scholarship winners are lovely, as is every single other person I meet. Anthony, our travel-writing mentor, is full of amazing stories, and he puts up with our need to take group photos at every possible opportunity with long-suffering grace. We stand in the reading room of the State Library of Victoria and it feels like we've gone back in time. Us, and about five hundred university students frantically cramming for finals.
There are moments that will stand out in my memory with an unusual sort of clarity. Turning around and coming face to face with an emu. A soccer field full of kangaroos. Stalling the campervan because no one thought to mention it was a stick. Staring into the eyes of a saltwater crocodile. Sunburned thighs. Trying shelf-stable milk for the first time. The jarring disparity between the joy I felt at spending the day on the Great Barrier Reef and my shock at learning that Donald Trump had become president while I was on the water. All the while writing everything down in the little black notebook that my friend Patrick gave me.
It's been five months since the end of that trip. Who knows what my life is going to look like in the next few years, but winning this scholarship reinvigorated me, and reminded me how much I've always wanted to develop a career around writing. While I've thought that would take the shape of creative fiction, Anthony reminded me that non-fiction doesn't have to be dry, technical and uninteresting. There are things all around us that are worth writing about, and each of us can bring a different perspective to the things we see. This experience was amazing, but more than anything else it gave me confidence to pursue that idea.