The timeless expression ‘a good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving’ came ironically to mind as I arrived bleary eyed and cramped into Chania airport. The flight had only lasted an hour from Athens, a feat still hard to comprehend coming from somewhere where it takes anywhere from three to four hours to cross your own country.
It was not until I reached the arrival gate, half torn bus timetable in hand and a lack of appreciation for budget travel in the other, that I realised I might not be intent on arriving ever. There was not one single bus lined up outside of the automatic glass doors, despite the decrepit sign post swinging warily in the wind.
My eyes swooped upon the lines of black taxis assembled expectantly for battle with one another and I did a quick calculation in my head:
25 minutes to the hotel.
€20 in my pocket.
Single passenger, Saturday night.
Just as I was beginning to evaluate how necessary my next meal was, I felt a set of impatient fingers tap me on the shoulder. Unused to recognition or attention in a foreign country, I abruptly swung around and almost bowled over the man standing behind me with the arc of my suitcase. I quickly recognized him as the American man from 28E, who in the one hour flight did not seem to stop explaining why he was in Chania in the first place.
Not even when I had accidentally fallen asleep.
The man had said he was there on ‘military’ business. Only problem was, I’d never heard of an American military base in Chania, and he was without a uniform or ID.
Now he was standing in front of me with a wide-toothed grin plastered across his face, asking me excitedly whether I needed a lift straight outta here.
Despite the futility of my situation and the serious possibility of spending the night in an airport I carefully weighed up my options, the concept of “stranger danger” still very much instilled in my 18-year-old 5’8”, 52kg self. Despite my idealised new identity as a globe trotter.
Maybe it was this newfound invincibility and sudden awareness of my lack of realistic alternatives that helped me wheel my oversized suitcase cautiously toward the smallest of the three shops in the Chania airport, the car rental.
After the American signed documents and I ignored the confused looks from the older man behind the counter as he handed over the keys, we stepped out into the humid air of the Mediterranean night and headed towards the small silver Lexus parked in the visitor’s section. The American lifted the cases into the trunk and motioned to the front seat.
The next fifteen minutes of my life were a blur. Not in the romantic-silent-film-of-the-greatest-moments-of-my-life sort of way, more like the car was moving so fast down a pitch black highway that I felt I might be sucked straight out of the passenger side window. When the American finally decided to slow down and I unwrapped my knuckles from around my door handle, I realised that we were not at my hotel; in fact we weren’t even in the city.
We had pulled into the entrance of a car park underneath a large, brightly lit hotel. The time was inching toward midnight, in a country where no one even knew what city I was in and the only people who could take a guess were on the other side of the world. I didn’t have a mobile phone or someone awaiting my arrival and an automatic aluminium gate had just closed on my last chance to escape a stranger in a half-empty underground car park.
The American turned into a free space and cut the ignition, breathing in deeply. He turned and smiled at me: interesting night so far? I nodded, too afraid to offer a reply. We sat there, locked in his car for long enough for me to recall every possible abduction awareness advertisement ever aired on television.
Then, apparently still withholding the ability to surprise me, the American promptly stepped out of the car and motioned absently to one of his suitcases, asking a question that caused all of the invisible hairs on my neck to stand up: Can you just help me into my room? This hadn’t been part of the deal. I started to desperately consider my options. I could run screaming into the lobby and cause a scene. Demand to take a taxi instead, or even attempt to send a telepathic message to the awaiting receptionist. All substantial theories until I realised my bags were still locked in the trunk of his car. So I lifted one of the cases he handed to me and we climbed the two flights of stairs to his hotel room.
I knew what was supposed to happen next.
The unsuspecting young white female is lured into a room or a basement, by the surprisingly helpful older man and never makes it back out. Or in other words, the opening scene to every horror movie ever produced. I was trapped in the mythological labyrinth with what I assumed to be my Minotaur: the ancient Greek creature that resided in a maze and was offered a regular sacrifice of youth and maids to satisfy his cannibalistic hunger. Or in my case: a half sincere, half terrifying American in a silver Lexus.
With all of this in mind I dropped the suitcases inside the threshold of the room and backed out of the doorway, politely declining the invitation to come in and relax, have something to eat.
When the trap did not fall and the American failed to begin a long soliloquy and pull out any concealed weapons, we moved back downstairs and after fifteen minutes of quick conversation in Greek with the receptionist (what I still considered to be the plans for my abduction), the American jumped back into his still-idling car, map of Chania in hand. Another pitch black highway at 200 km/h and we burst into the lights of the city centre.
The city of Chania is set out similar to the long avenues of Paris and New York, with the narrow intertwining streets of Venice. A labyrinth of shops, stalls, restaurants and nightlife surrounded by the glittering strip of the renowned Venetian harbour, basically untouched by locals since it was first built in the 1300’s. A juxtaposition of old and new: crumbling churches and ancient museums against a la carte restaurants and five star accommodations.
Away from the harbour you can see the tourist driven clumps of market stalls spilling out from the walkways. Cretan flags, hand crafted silver jewellery, even small stalls with dead skin eating fish. I could just barely glimpse the fresh juice, aromatic bites of local cuisine and hidden alleyways before we sped past the tiny restaurants where old men sat and drank, wrapped in dense clouds of cigarette smoke.
I noticed the American staring intently down at the map in his hand and I began to pray to whoever might be listening that he would not kill me with his apparent lack of road observation skills. He began to mutter under his breath and then without warning, wrenched the steering wheel around and pulled in adjacent to the sidewalk with an audible screech. Without a word he stepped out of the car and approached one of the local men, who was leaning against a black taxi and balancing a cigarette in one hand.
The man tried to peer through the windshield at me and I wondered not for the first time that night, whether they might be discussing the plans for my abduction. Instead the American walked back to the trunk, pulled out my suitcase with some effort and craned his head toward the taxi, indicating for me to get out. He placed my suitcase in the taxi and handed the driver a crisp €20 note in one smooth handshake, take her wherever she wants to go.
I stared at him in disbelief as he rummaged through his wallet and pulled out a business card with the instantly recognisable insignia of the American government and contact numbers for military personnel. The expression on my face must have been enough explanation for he simply replied I believe in Karma.
After the taxi dropped me at the door, the driver satisfied with his €10 tip, I checked into my hotel, not sure whether to be grateful for the American’s generosity or thankful he did not pursue any inner psychopathic tendencies. Without a shower or changing out of my clothes I dropped my suitcase, bolted the door shut and crawled under the covers, trying to hold on to the idea that I was actually safe and had survived the stupidest decision of my life.
This bizarre welcome to the island was my very first impression of the sprawling vibrant metropolis of Chania. I woke up the next morning, still fully dressed and with the door bolted shut. The Minotaur had disappeared, leaving only his calling card and the name of a local bar he drank at in his wake.
As I sat on the small balcony attached to my hotel room, poring over a guide book, a small family brought home their groceries for the day and a man stopped to have a cigarette with his neighbour on the street below. Life was simple in the former capital, far removed from the nightmare of my night with the Minotaur.
I never saw the American again. I even Googled the name of the bar he told me he would be at and I made a point in always avoiding it. Yet there was something he left behind, a karmic debt that I found myself owing for the rest of my trip.
The most amazing Gyro, a local dish of roasted meat with tomato onion and tzatziki sauce wrapped in pita bread, was found at a shop I walked by every day until the owner called out to me on the street and offered me a free meal if just once I would walk into his restaurant.
A German tourist in the room next to mine fed me breakfast, lunch and dinner out of his own pocket in exchange for showing him what I knew about the city after I lost my bank card and as a result, access to my entire savings for the next three days.
I spent an entire week snorkelling the harbour, sampling the tantalisingly delicacies and wandering the tiny streets until I became lost. I took an hour long bus to hike the 16km of Samaria Gorge, the longest gorge in Europe and a natural wonder of the world. I lay on the nationally preserved Elafonisi beach and saw myself in an idyllic travel brochure. I even let a smooth talking man in a suit usher me into one of the restaurants on the glitter strip.
When it came time for me to leave Crete I couldn’t help but stare at the empty seat on the plane next to me. Was the tranquillity of Chania only due to the strange generosity of the American? If he was the cause was my entire experience of Crete the effect? What I had thought to be the Minotaur, luring the young traveller into the maze had perhaps rescued me. Not just from the airport but from a potentially unmemorable holiday. One spent amongst the droves of summer tourists, blindly following an oversized novelty map around and never fully appreciating the unfixed plans of a traveller.