My heartbeat raced a million miles a minute, and sweat covered my face from the 108-degree Thailand sun beating down on my freckled skin. The anxiety overwhelmed me as the exact moment I anticipated in my mind so many times began to play out in reality. As I wrestled a 71-pound Giant Mekong catfish on the end of my line, wobbling on the edge of a wooden platform, a stream of consciousness hit me: Either I will land the catch of my life or it will land me! The moment marked the pursuit of a list of someday things that were dormant in my life for many years.
For my fortieth birthday I set out to put someday in motion. My gift to myself was to no longer wait to pursue the dreams, wishes and hopes that got suffocated by everyday life.
So I packed my bags and set out on an incredible journey to explore Southeast Asia, visiting Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. My purpose, originally, was to fish for the Giant Mekong catfish, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world and the first item on my bucket list. Ever since my grandfather taught me to fish with a cane pole as a little girl, I dreamed that someday I would catch a fish as big as me. Then one day, a friend showed me a photo of the bigger-than-life Giant Mekong catfish and said, “Wouldn’t you love to catch one of these?” That was the fish in my mind that never had a name. And, that moment set off a seemingly impossible quest to give life to something that only ever existed in my world as a childish daydream.
My real purpose of this journey emerged as I experienced a foreign environment, visited remote tribal villages, explored ancient temples, rode an elephant through the jungle and shared many humbling moments with people different than me. Upon my return home, I realized that I not only caught that fish the size of me—in fact, I caught 25 of them—but I crossed something else off that list that I never knew was there: A true understanding of what it means to live each day as if it were my last.
Taking time to smell the green tea
Feeling alive means awakening the senses. I rarely take time to soak in the moment and consciously feel, smell and see the world around me. The naturally beautiful and primitive country of Laos reminded me why taking the time to do this is therapeutic.
I walked a green tea plantation, where the leaves filled the air with fresh, earthy scents. I closed my eyes by the Pha Pheng waterfall, the largest in Southeast Asia, and listened to the rushing crescendo of the mighty Mekong converging in harmony. The force was so strong that water droplets sprinkled my body and cooled me from the scalding sun. I get lost among rows and rows of coffee bushes on a plantation and tasted Arabica beans straight from the vine. The beans tasted like fruit, but with the hint of boldness that emerges in those familiar cups of coffee. I saw Asian elephants walking freely and got close enough to look them in the eyes. Three of them greeted me on my way to breakfast one morning, as if this perfect moment had been awaiting my arrival. And while visiting tribal villages, I photographed and played with children whose only commonality with me was a smile.
In these moments, I felt alive and invigorated. This authentic sensory awareness brings renewal and returns me to my center. It is that comfortable, yet foreign place where I feel my truest sense of self. I remembered to take deep breaths, close my eyes and feel the sun, listen to calming water, indulge in local delicacies that awakened my taste buds, soak in all that I see around me and truly appreciate the gifts my senses give to me.
Somewhere between strolling barefoot down a sandy dirt road in Siem Reap, Cambodia and climbing through the sprawling ancient temple complex at Angkor Wat, I discovered the power of purpose. The people here have suffered great loss and struggle to re-build their lives after the cultural and ethnic cleansing of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Everyone I met had lost someone. In some cases, entire families were tortured and murdered. They know a kind of loss and tragedy that I cannot imagine, but through their stories they taught me that hope and promise are powerful tools.
This lesson became very real to me the day of my birthday as I rode on the back of a motorbike on the dusty winding roads in the Cambodian hillside. In the distance I saw a golden temple atop a mountain. It is the site of the killing caves where thousands of people died, including families of some of the locals I met.
It made me think about life and death as I soaked in the beauty of my surroundings and the dark past they held. I think about those I have lost in my own life, including my brother Keir at a young age and my best friend just last year. As I marked a birthday milestone, I thought about the birthdays they will not celebrate. Wiping tears from beneath my dusty helmet, I was thankful again for the treasure that life is and that not one minute should go to waste.
These Cambodian people who have suffered immense tragedy taught me that moving forward requires the ability to embrace loss in a way that fuels purpose in our lives.
It will always be ok
Throughout my journey, whether I was face to face with a hanging spider the size of my hand (everything is big in the jungle by the way), riding an elephant that extends me over a cliff while it ponders a tasty tree below, in a rickety boat that I am not sure will stay afloat, or making a special request while dining on local fare, I encountered the same response to almost every comment or question I asked: “It OK.”
Even when it is not OK to me, to them, “It OK.” I crossed the streets in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as motorbikes nearly hit me in a disorganized driving system; a local tells me, “It OK.” I mistake a word on the menu to mean something else and end up with small shrimp heads in my Pad Thai; the waiter assures me, “It OK.” I question the bell-hop at the hotel about where he’s going with my luggage and his response is, “It OK.”
While I find great amusement in the idea that one phrase can comprehensively apply to literally every situation and question, I appreciate its simplicity. This is one discovery my intellect ponders, because “it OK” also means the end of the conversation. I decided this genius concept is something I should apply to my own life.
No matter what happens, ever, it will always be OK. Somehow, it seems that life chaos and the unexpected always find a resting place. I know now that things may not always go my way, but it will be OK.
My strong woman shows up
I find that suggesting someone is a strong woman is cliché in American society. What does it actually mean? It is something I wondered as I tackled that first item on my someday list, fishing in Thailand for the Giant Mekong catfish. My fishing guide shouts “Strong woman, strong woman!” like a soundtrack for the moment, and for what I realized was a metaphor for my life.
After 9 long hours and 25 fish weighing in at 50, 60 and 70 pounds, my body was exhausted, my muscles withered and my endurance waning. Nonetheless, I somehow continued to uncover another ounce of strength to get me through the next catch even when my mind and body thought it was not possible to pull in one more.
In my worn state, the idea of real strength dawned on me. Not just physical strength, but the kind of mental endurance required to usher us through the most challenging moments in our lives. Whether it is an illness, a relationship or job conflict, tragedy or personal pain, I know that it is possible to keep up the fight just a little bit more when I have nothing left to give. That is real strength.
As I packed my life lessons along with my souvenirs and returned home, I was grateful. I moved beyond what was comfortable, set the excuses aside and embraced a journey of self-discovery. Engaging with locals in cultures I do not know, sharing a laugh and a million moments of human connection with people who do not speak my language or even know my name is so freeing.
I return wondering why we make that someday list exclusive to special occasions, when it should actually be the roadmap guiding our lives. It holds our greatest goals and dreams and the answers to personal fulfillment. Like connecting dots, I look ahead as the other items on my list come into view; trekking though the desert on camel-back; learning to steer a gondola in Venice; climbing Machu Picchu; seeing a polar bear in the wild and floating down the Amazon.
The perspective I gained through my Asian journey impacts my life every day. The cold Ohio weather that I used to despise is now invigorating to me. Worries about things that are out of my control seem smaller now. And, I have proven to myself that endurance is a state of mind. I can take on anything!