We landed on Heraklion, the largest city in Crete, fizzy with the excitement of being in a new place. Corinne, my flatmate, and I had no plans, not even a guidebook. The year was 1978, and we’d chosen our destination at random, drawing upon our perks as flight attendants. Just six hours earlier, we had arrived at London’s Gatwick airport with nothing but a bag each and a week’s vacation to fill. Within 15 minutes, we had chosen our destination, received our tickets, and headed for the gate. Now, as we walked out into the sunshine, we were about to do what we’d done from the moment we’d begun traveling together: Wing it.
I’d met Corinne on our first day of training to be flight attendants. I was 21, fresh out of college, with a desire to see the world. As an insolvent graduate, I wanted someone else to pay for the travel, so I searched for employment that would meet the demands of my wanderlust. Corinne had been working a desk job for the travel agency Thomas Cook and was experiencing that same urge to seek adventure minus the cost. So, there we were, one day learning how to serve coffee without scalding a passenger and the next launching ourselves down emergency slides into a swimming pool. We also learned that, should an aircraft crash in the Arctic Circle, eating polar bear liver was to be avoided—it’s highly toxic. I remember glancing across the room of young women in red-and-black uniforms, wondering if I was the only person suppressing laughter. Everyone else was taking notes—and then I caught Corinne’s eye. We both started to giggle, and I knew that she, too, was visualizing herself in wild pursuit of a polar bear somewhere in the Arctic.
We found a flat together near our base at Gatwick, and from our first flight we knew that travel together would be a blast. It was evident the moment we dropped a box containing 30 airline meals while trying to secure it in a locker. Most new flight attendants would have been mortified, but we couldn’t stop laughing as we scraped lurid red Jell-O off individual servings of chicken and coleslaw. After discovering that for many air crew, being “down route” meant hanging out in a bar—which didn’t appeal to either of us—we started requesting matching flight schedules so we’d have someone to adventure with in a new city.
On that first afternoon in Crete, we ambled around Agios Nikolaos, watching locals prepare for the Easter holiday as the sun beat down on whitewashed houses and market stalls dense with fresh produce and olive oil. We stopped to watch women clustered around the back of a van, waiting while two men brought out a fresh tuna and began chopping away with a cleaver. We moved on, listening to the holiday buzz in the air, people calling out to each other. As dusk fell and the traders began to pack up, we thought we’d stop at a tavern for a bite to eat and a glass of wine.
We’d only just sat down when two men settled in beside us and introduced themselves as Greek shipping magnates. Shipping magnates? We weren’t falling for that story. It became clear that they were trying to separate us. We exchanged glances, and I knew Corinne was feeling the same discomfort. It was time to leave. Five, by the door.
From the time we became flatmates, there was always a party to go to, but we’d made a rule that we would always leave together, and that as soon as one of us wanted to leave, we would both go. And we had our special signal: Whoever wanted to depart first would catch the other’s eye and hold up a hand, fingers splayed, then give a quick nod toward the exit. That meant, “Five minutes, by the door.” Then we would chug home in my old blue VW Beetle, the car I had to park facing downhill in case I needed to pop the clutch to start it.
In the noisy tavern, I nodded toward the ladies’ room and told the “shipping magnate” that I would be back in a minute. Weaving through a cluster of people, I detoured toward the exit, where Corinne joined me.
“These Greek blokes are all on the make,” Corinne said.
As we walked away from the tavern, we heard one of the men shout after us, and then they moved in our direction. It was dark now, but we acted fast. I looked back and saw them pulling out a scooter. There was a staircase leading to the beach a few yards away, so we ran and clambered down, hiding in the lee of the seawall, listening as the men zoomed back and forth on their scooter along the road above, searching for us. When all was quiet, we felt confident enough to emerge from our hiding place, freezing cold. As soon as we were back at our guesthouse, the peril behind us, we laughed until we cried.
It was in Crete that I realized just how good Corinne was at getting free stuff, a skill that has continued to serve us well. (My skill? I’m the one who remembers the way back to a hotel after a walkabout—or after hiding under a seawall.) Corinne had met a lovely British woman who owned a hotel with her husband and who had invited us to use the pool and enjoy a free lunch. Great! Except that, in return for this golden opportunity, Corinne had volunteered us to be “models” for a photographer working on the new hotel brochure. This entailed Corinne languishing on a sun lounger with a cocktail in hand, while I throttled back and forth in the pool, looking up only when the photographer yelled, “Smile, Jackie!”
We set ourselves a limit of only two years in the air before we’d figure out what we really wanted to do in life. In the meantime, we made the most of our benefits, traveling throughout Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe, as well as venturing to other parts of Britain, becoming travelers in our own country. Inevitably, we transitioned to our chosen careers, immersing ourselves in work that left little opportunity to travel. In time, I would move more than 5,000 miles away to live in California, and Corinne and her husband would raise two daughters in Yorkshire, England.
Yet at some point we resumed traveling together, slipping into our old pattern with ease, planning trips without any dithering or dissent. Corinne is better at finding hotels we like, and I’m good with flights—15 minutes after we decided on four days in Marrakech, everything was booked. And that’s when we dusted off a pact we’d made in our early 20s—in an insouciant moment, we’d promised that, when we reached the grand old age of 60, we would commit to a travel adventure every year until we could no longer drag ourselves aboard an aircraft, train, ship, or bus. Time whipped around, and in 2015, soon after we entered our 60s, we traveled to Costa Rica, followed by Alaska the next year, and then Kenya, a place we’d dreamed of visiting for years.
As the small aircraft circled a rough landing strip on Kenya’s Maasai Mara, I nudged Corinne to look out the window. A boy on a motorbike was racing around the grassy area, driving away grazing antelope so we could land. We were on our way to Mahali Mzuri, the tent retreat founded by Sir Richard Branson. Every day seemed to thrill us more than the day before, as Betty—one of only a handful of female guides working on the Mara—took us out on safari. Over dinner each evening, with the calling of wild animals in the distance, we slipped into reminiscing. Perhaps it was being in Africa that made us reflect upon those early days of clambering aboard planes, ready to go wherever a free ticket might take us. We talked about what we had hoped for when we embarked on our travels years ago. We had a desire to learn more about the world and its people, to experience wildly different places that would force us to grow as we gained knowledge of cultures beyond our own. Along the way, we learned to be worthy travel companions—and to respect each other’s needs and preferences. I’ve long since forgiven Corinne for using the hair dryer several times each day, and I know she tolerates my need to sit as close to the front of an aircraft as possible.
On the day we left the Mara, we watched the boy on his bike shooing away antelope so our aircraft could whisk us away from a land we didn’t want to leave. But we knew that we would be traveling again soon, honoring an intention forged all those years ago: to render life as big as we could possibly make it.