How One Craigslist Encounter Encouraged Me to Travel Solo
Merriam-Webster defines serendipity as “The phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” I define it as a series of happy accidents; of things being in the right place at the right time.
For me, living by the law of serendipity means not only keeping your eyes open for opportunity, but allowing your gut instincts to push aside practical fear so that big moves and amazing things can happen.
It’s taking in “signs” that fate is pushing you in a certain direction, and going with that flow until the current is inexorable and you find yourself exactly where you need to be. Trusting yourself enough to free yourself from the shackles of self-doubt and geographical attachment to try on a new identity in a new place.
When I was 19, I didn’t know yet that the rest of my life was about to be shaped by this faith in intuition. All I knew was that I was about to make the scariest, biggest decision I’d made to date: Moving across the country to a city I’d never been to, to live with a girl I’d met on Craigslist — all based on what some might call a whim.
It became the best thing I ever did.
I had promised my boyfriend two years.
Two years, I’d stay local. But then that was it.
I had told my parents the same. I would go to college close to home, save money, and improve my GPA enough to transfer to a higher-ranked school with scholarships. That was the plan, at least, as I enrolled in a competitive state school close to home on Long Island, New York, and began going through the motions with a little bit of resentment and a whole lot of hope.
After all, I’d always wanted to go away for university. As a first-generation American, I wanted that quintessential American experience: Big open quads, friends from all corners of the country, late-night dorm-room study sessions, raging Greek-lettered weekends. All of it. And I was willing to wait for it.
With every semester, that two-year mark crept closer. But with every new friend and every great professor, breaking away started to seem harder.
At the end of sophomore year, I delayed by bandying about the idea of studying abroad. But I was a woman of my word, and knew that this was the chance of a lifetime. When else would Uncle Sam help pay for you to live in a vacation destination? I asked myself. When else would you ever be this free to move about the country and experience a different life? To reinvent, or better yet, find yourself?
The answer was never. Which meant the time was now.
Research began in full force.
Coming from a low-income family with parents who worked 364 days a year, visiting campuses wasn’t an option. I’d never traveled anywhere, so going it alone was too intimidating. But I was determined to make going “away” far away, and with that, put all my faith and trust into the law of serendipity.
I applied to top-ranking colleges in California; I wanted to see if the Golden State matched up to the silver screen. I filled out forms for universities in Atlanta, for love of Scarlett O’Hara. I sent inquiries off to Chicago; I didn’t mind a little wind. St. Louis, Ann Arbor…the Midwest had rankings that exceeded mid-range, and I still had to keep an eye to my future. These destinations were chosen for top-of-mind consciousness, put there either by their portrayal in pop culture or their placement on the U.S. News & World Report list.
But then, a city I’d never given much thought to caught my eye: New Orleans.
I happened to land on Tulane University’s page in the huge, anecdotally-based Fiske Guide to Colleges, and was intrigued. Louisiana wasn’t even on my radar, initially, but the more I learned about Tulane and the Crescent City, the more I felt my heart tug south.
There was something magical about the idea of living in the City That Care Forgot.
A picture of idyllic gentility and daily poetry started to form in my head. So when the acceptance letter came in almost immediately and with a financial aid package I could live with, I did something distinctly uncharacteristic for my Type A, over-planning ego: I followed my id.
Armchair research was limited in the early 2000s. The public library was my greatest asset, its heavy print books a font of knowledge. The Internet had far fewer opinions than it does today, camera phones were low-resolution, and Facebook was not yet a thing. People weren’t documenting their every move, so I had minimal first-hand accounting to flesh out my move across the country. I just had to have faith that my gut wasn’t steering me wrong.
After a bad experience with a horrific roommate and having read reports that off-campus housing was economical, I decided that being able to handpick my new housemates was going to be tantamount to making this work.
Using the university’s roommate search engine, I found what could be a good living situation: Two other girls in a house walking distance to campus, one of whom was actively involved in a sorority and could maybe help me navigate that experience. We had a few friendly exchanges via phone and email that foretold a passable experience of pleasantry and politeness. It was fine.
But I was a history major, and couldn’t leave a single stone unturned. Although I had paperwork in hand, I needed confirmation that I was choosing the best available option.
So — you guessed it — I went on Craigslist, that old website that has now been relegated to the ranks of the sketchy and unlikely.
Browsing the apartments for rent and roommate-wanted scenarios listed, I clicked on a listing with a below-budget monthly rate, and opened an engagingly-written ad for a place even closer to campus. In the spirit of spontaneity, I left a message for this Oshea Orchid — an improbable name for a “Why not?” situation — and went on with my day.
Just a few hours later, as I was changing for a kickboxing class at my school’s gym, my cell phone rang with an unfamiliar number. I flipped it open, and a cheery voice, full of sunshine and light, beamed through the receiver.
“Hi, this is Oshea!” She practically sang out. “Is this Su-Jit? I’m so excited you called. Let’s talk about the apartment!”
The connection was instant. I knew without a doubt that she was a kindred spirit; an extraordinary individual that would impact my life in a major way. Her effervescent energy spilled through the phone line from Louisiana to New York, and my gut told me for the second time in only a few weeks that yes, this is what it feels like when serendipity is at work.
That night, engrossed as I was in a conversation with a stranger I felt I’d known my whole life, I never made it out of the locker room and into the studio. I sent a guilt-laden apology to the two girls in the other, much nicer apartment, and requested a lease to live in the basement of Tulane’s Hillel on Frat Row.
I bought my very first set of luggage for my new life.
I got them at Marshalls; they were an Atlantis set on clearance, and I liked them because they matched JetBlue branding — another auspicious sign since that’s who I purchased my one-way ticket with. I fit my life into two oversized suitcases, one medium, and one carry-on, filling them as full to the brim as I was of hope.
As excited as I was, I was nervous, too. Was I making a terrible mistake, committing to live in a city I’d never visited for the next two years? Would I be helpless without my car, my family, my boyfriend? What if I didn’t like my new roommate in person, and the connection was imagined? I didn’t even know what she looked like! Was I crazy for following nothing more than a primal instinct and leaving everything I’d ever known behind?
For weeks, months, the doubts roiled through my head. Yet they never made it to my belly. My gut was a calm oasis, and the minute I landed, it finally set in that my over-analytical mind didn’t always know what was best.
Because the second I stepped out on that curb with my mountain of suitcases, saw Oshea’s smile shining brighter than the headlights of her old Chrysler, and saw the New Orleans skyline for the very first time in my life, I felt something powerful and visceral. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders at the same time that an anchor found purchase from my heart to the terra beneath my feet. Within moments, I knew that this was how it felt to be home.
I am not a religious person, by any means, but I do believe in fate.
On a primal level, I am positive that serendipity led the way to New Orleans — and the shape of the rest of my life.
Through trusting in it, I discovered an outlandish, brilliant city worth falling deeply and madly in love with. I found proof that being brave about your choices and taking calculated risks paid off.
It was this experience that gave me the courage to travel solo as I got older, and the confidence in knowing I could make it on my own. The strength to change course from the pre-law career path I’d been working toward for years. The vision to see opportunities when they shimmer on the horizon, and the ability to make them more concrete.
Most importantly, I gained the knowledge that in all of us is the power to create the life we want if we only let go of fear and do what feels right.
I learned that reinvention can be not only easy, but revitalizing, and that one should never limit their lives tied down to geography for fear of the unknown or the distance. All you need is a bit of courage to find or create your best life, and a healthy dose of practical sense to go alongside it. Because we are all, as individual intrepid women, inherently capable of anything, from anywhere.
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As a woman traveler today, a decade out from my own awakening, it’s become even easier to close your eyes and jump. Into a new world, a new life, new identity.
To those who dream with their hearts but lead with their heads, know this: Anything is possible when you follow the breadcrumbs that show that serendipity is at work. The rest — nay, best — of your life could be waiting for you.