This is the first of three extracts from An Innocent Abroad, a collection of true travel stories about innocence lost and life-changing experiences.
This is the part where I jump off a cliff into choppy, shark-infested waters. It’s the middle of the Australian winter and I am barefoot, wearing a wetsuit with neon stripes down the side. I have never been to Australia before and did not grow up in a surfing community. This is my first time in a wetsuit. As I crouch down against the evening wind, readying myself to spring off this pointy rock and into a part of the Sydney Harbor called ‘Shark Bay,’ I feel like a superhero, surveying her lands from atop a stone gargoyle. This is an unusual feeling. My traveling superpowers are generally limited to making trains arrive by losing my boarding pass and being impervious to caffeine before 7 a.m.
I’m not supposed to be here. I know this because about 40 feet inland from the cliff is a sign that reads ‘Warning: Serious Injuries Have Occurred to Persons Jumping From Cliff Edge.’ But the sign has an inverse effect on me. Its very existence means that more than one person has done this and come out in one piece (more or less). Maybe, I think, this is what it feels like to be brave. As an adult, it’s easy to get away with being so corporally unadventurous. Most careers do not require you to leap from tree houses or see who can hold their breath the longest. Therefore, to prove to myself that I’m as adventurous as a teenager, I’m going to fling myself off this cliff.
‘We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,’ my new friend Jill shouts.
Jill is a classically fearless Australian blond who takes trips to New Zealand with the express purpose of jumping off that country’s edges. She also has the dubious distinction of being my only friend in Australia. I came to her country on a book tour and almost immediately met Jill, who agreed to show me ‘her Sydney’ on my day off. But even she’s having second thoughts about this particular activity.
‘There could be sharks,’ she adds. ‘Honestly.’
‘There’s a Diamond Bay around here somewhere,’ I try to be cool. ‘I’m sure it’s not covered in actual diamonds.’
‘It’s not like up north,’ she concedes, referring to the Great Barrier Reef, ‘but occasionally there are sharks.’
‘Occasionally,’ I mutter into the wind.
Below me, the water is opaque and violently stucco, concealing a more permanent terrain of rocks, tangled kelp and underfed sea monsters. In the distance, the Sydney Opera House looks like a folded linen napkin. The water knows I’m looking for a safe place to jump, that I’m trying to get through, but the darkness is like a busy signal. All of our representatives are currently busy assisting the sharks — please try back again later. I curl my toes around the cliff’s edge as it releases the last of the day’s warmth.
‘This is Australia,’ she clarifies. ‘If there’s a way to kill you, we’ve bred it.’
‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘That’s very comforting.’
‘Oh God, I can just imagine the headline: Young American Writer Killed by Australian Girl.’
‘We’re not that nice,’ I correct her. ‘It would just read ‘Idiot Bites It.’’
The cliff itself is in Nielsen Park, near the eastern suburbs of Sydney. We took Jill’s BMW to get here, zipping through a neighborhood of castle-like private schools with girls in knee socks and boys in ties meandering at the gates. They looked straight out of central casting for Harry Potter: Rise of the Platypus. I kept thinking: what could possibly happen to me in this neighborhood? But the terrain changes fast in Australia, even in Sydney. Jill and I parked, changed into our wetsuits, and quickly began hiking up into the woods. Soon the manmade stairs morphed into root-system stairs.
‘Isn’t it funny,’ I panted, swatting away thorny branches, ‘how long it takes to get places when you’ve never been there before?’
Jill stopped abruptly and put her nose in the air like a beagle.
‘Follow me,’ she said over her shoulder.
We broke off from the path. When there was no more shrubbery to dodge, I found myself looking at a stunning tree- framed view of Sydney... and a cliff that dropped off straight into the water.
That was about twenty minutes ago. Now cockatoos watch us from the trees above, dubious. I want to jump, I do. Badly. I keep blaming my hesitation on variables. Maybe if it was summer. Maybe if we had a better sense of the tides and the wind. Maybe if the sky was less ominous. Maybe if I had consulted my insurance plan first. I could break my neck if it’s too shallow down there. I flip-flop between ‘When am I ever going to be back here again?’ and ‘I’d like to keep enjoying my full mobility.’ Jill and I are silent for a good minute, each waiting for the other to speak.
‘Huh,’ I say through blue lips, ‘I wonder how we’re going to get back up.’
The thing with nature is that it doesn’t reward you with an escalator when you do something dangerous.
‘That does it!’ Jill throws her neoprene-covered arms into the air. ‘I’ve never even done this in winter. It’s crazy. I’m pulling the plug. I don’t want to do it.’
‘What?’ My eyes bulge. ‘You have to.’
‘It’s scary as hell,’ she says, pointing at the water as if it knows what it did, ‘and I know from scary.’
I think I have never been so grateful to hear a set of words. They have a magical, spell-lifting effect. This is what I’ve been subconsciously waiting for, to be released from my adventurous goals by a real, live Australian. I tell her that I understand, that I don’t want to pressure her. She kindly lets me take on this role even though we both know I was the petrified one. We stop at a public restroom near the park’s entrance to change out of our wetsuits, hopping up and down to get warm. When I get my suit stuck over my head, Jill and I laugh until there are tears rolling down our faces. It is perhaps the best time I’ve ever had not doing something. That said, I still wish the story ended differently. I wish I could say I jumped. Barring that, I wish I could say I came to the realization on my own that it was okay not to jump.
Oh well. There’s always Diamond Bay.
Sloane Crosley is the New York Times bestselling author of I Was Told There’d Be Cake, How Did You Get This Number and the e-book, Up the Down Volcano. She edited The Best American Travel Writing 2011 and is a frequent contributor to NPR, The New York Times and GQ magazine. Her first novel, The Clasp, will be out in 2015.
A misunderstanding in Morocco. A Cuban con. An epiphany in the Czech Republic. These are just a few of the travel stories from some of the world's best-loved writers in our new book, An Innocent Abroad. Join our Google Hangout to discuss these tales of innocence lost with the book's editor, Don George.