By Andy Christian Castillo
Solo travel is exhilarating. There’s nothing like it; no feeling equal to being a plane-ride from home and alone, disconnected from the digital world, heading nowhere in particular, without a plan.
I arrived in Brussels around 10 p.m. on a Thursday in February three years ago, coming from Amsterdam, traveling to England. It was my first solo venture; a dream-come-true. A few months earlier, I’d bought a two week Eurorail pass, free reign on most trains in the European Union. Days before, I’d landed in Vienna, traveling through Germany to the Netherlands, where I stayed in Amsterdam’s red light district.
After two days there, I booked a flight to England; however, for reasons I still don’t understand, my flight wasn’t reserved when I arrived at the airport. Instead, I found a ferry from Calais to Dover, catching a commuter train through the Belgium countryside.
Streetcars crisscrossed the night as I stepped out of Bruxelles Central, the city’s travel hub. Rainwater flowed in tiny rivers down cobblestone streets. The air was crisp and fresh. Just outside the main entrance, volunteers ladled soup to huddled figures shuffling past a table.
Using the station’s free wifi, I found a few hostels within walking distance, tightened my backpack’s straps, and set out. After fifteen minutes of walking, the city’s business district gave way to rundown restaurants and boarded up windows. The street became narrower, hemmed in on either side by parked cars. Scents turned from tantalizing to putrid. I didn’t pass anyone walking, although clusters of men, speaking Dutch, stood outside of a few bars.
Five minutes later, the hostel wasn’t in sight. I decided to return to the train station rather than continue. Soft rain began to fall as I retraced my steps.
Two black forms suddenly stepped out of an alleyway 20-feet in front of me. Beneath a streetlight, I saw they were laughing, jovial, and young, perhaps 18-years-old.
One of them gripped a handgun in his right hand.
There was nowhere to go. My heart raced; it was cold suddenly. Adrenaline surged; I gripped the straps of my backpack tightly.
I was blocked on one side by cars, a building on the other. The two came closer, stopping in front of a restaurant with a green awning.
The armed youth raised his pistol, suddenly, aiming inside the restaurant’s doorway, now mere feet away. Both tall and lanky with close cropped hair. The other laughed. The first dropped his aim, turning again toward me.
Pushing my heart down from my throat, I walked coolly past, staring straight ahead, ducking to the far side of the walkway.
They stepped in behind me.
My brain raced, vision tunneled. There was black BMW ahead of me, I remember it vividly, through the mist. That’s where I would go. An image flashed into my mind: blood seeping into rainwater, the rough pavement against my skin. My mother’s face.
And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw them turn into a store, disappearing as quickly as they’d appeared.
Eventually, I found a rundown hostel and paid 40-euros to get off the street. It was the most I spent on a hostel during the trip.