Beads of sweat dripped down my neck as I fought the urge to scratch at the feverish mosquito bites being rubbed raw between the skin of my feet and my tennis shoes. I winced. With my backpack protectively clutched against my chest, I traced the shape of my camera lens and its cap with my fingertips, as if that would somehow protect it from being stolen from the locals keeping a close eye on me. I took a deep breath. Warm evening air hugged the inside of my lungs as I sprawled out on the powdery white sand. Clouds the color of Tang and pink lemonade littered the sky of my fourth Koh Samui sunset in a row. My camera never left my backpack.
Go chase your dreams, he whispered half-asleep while tucking one of my curls behind my ear. Insomnia had decided to visit me that night. The crippling weight of my own self-doubt and anxiety gnawed away at me. He had to wake up in a few hours but groggily listened to me worry out loud anyway. You have to do this for yourself, he reminded me, before we finally drifted off to sleep in our new bed, in our new condo, in our new state. Everything had changed.
I envisioned this trip many times. The aimless wandering around Buddhist temples. The loud slurping of veggie pho I’d partake in while rubbing elbows with old Vietnamese men who fought on the other side of the war from my grandfather. For years, my work commute consisted of pining for the scent of freshly opened coconuts and the freedom to take pictures from dawn till dusk. It was easy, during those days of day-dreaming, to say exactly what I would do given the opportunity to be a travel photographer. Of course, I would jump at it. Of course, it would be euphoric. Life-changing, even. I was certain I would make something extraordinary out of it — if only I was given the chance.
It was little effort for me to imagine all the amazing things I would do “out in the world” while stuck in my cubicle. I passed the hours between my morning cup of coffee and lunch break by scribbling down the countries on my bucket list and salivating over foreign Airbnb listings. At the time, I thought these habits made me special, driven even — but in retrospect, I was really just bored. My dad would eat his fish tacos during our bi-monthly lunch dates, smiling endearingly at me between bites, as I fervently complained to him about how I could not work one more day in corporate America. Things needed to change for me, I would exclaim to him as I dipped my tortilla chips in his leftover salsa.
It was the money that had started to convince me. The fact that I made more money with photography than I was from my 9-5 planted a seed in my mind. A seed, that I believed if watered correctly and hastily, could blossom into my dream career. I believed that all the stars pointed in one direction — if I did not take the leap now, regret was inevitable for me. I needed to make it happen. But first, I needed thousands of dollars.
When my grandpa agreed to give me a loan, I thought for sure he would say no, Jamakea, you are crazy. You are irrational. Who do you think you are? That he would scoff at the amount I asked for and tell me to get a “real” job. But he didn’t. He wrote me the check with genuine confidence and trust. When I later deposited that check to my Wells Fargo account, I instantly felt the weight of the world crush down on my shoulders. Well fuck this better work, I cursed under my breath as I looked at my bank statement.
For the next few months, Google was my best friend. Suddenly, the world seemed enormous. There were too many countries, too many cities, too many national parks. My to-do-list seemed to grow longer, not shorter, with every item that I checked off. Flights to book. Foreign laws to study. Visas to order. I went down the rabbit hole with worry: What if I got Hepatitis? What if I got kidnapped into a human trafficking ring — my dad sure as hell was not going to go Liam Neeson on anyone’s ass. Fall turned to winter as I curled up on the day-bed, laptop burning the tops of my thighs, and a bottomless oversized cup of joe resting at my side. I decided that I wanted to spend 6-8 weeks exploring 2-3 different countries close in proximation. The final contenders were an African trip to Seychelles, Madagascar, and Kenya or a SE Asian adventure in Bali, Thailand, Vietnam, and Koh Samui. I imagined how my mother would react when I told her that I would be backpacking alone in Africa. And that is how SE Asia was chosen. Thanks, mom!
There was something about clicking that “book” button that sent a shiver down my spine. That made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Even though I had to click that button over ten times, it never ceased to spike my heart rate. This was happening and I had thousands of dollars in airline and hostel charges to prove it. A knot instantly formed in my stomach. I missed him already.
When I told him I would be gone six weeks, the words stuck like sand paper in my throat. He smiled at me. But underneath that encouraging smile was a deep sadness that I too shared. Please tell me to stay. I will cancel everything. But he didn’t ask me to stay and I knew he never would. I wondered if it was possible to miss someone so deeply before you even said goodbye. Months became weeks and weeks became days. We spoke a little sweeter and laughed a lot harder. I avoided looking at the date. We had spent two happy years together and moved 1,000 miles away from our hometown to start a new life in Washington just six months before my trip was to start. It was a fragile time for me to leave but we both knew I had to do it anyway.
The day before I left was an uncharacteristically sunny day in Portland. Despite being in the throes of the gloomy season, the day invited us outside with its warm rays of sunshine. It felt like the Earth was giving us a hug. Let’s rent e-bikes in Portland, he suggested while cooking us spaghetti the night before. Without hesitation, I said yes. That next day, we ended walking our bikes more than riding them to avoid becoming street meat. But it didn’t matter. We laughed and held hands and it was all I could do to keep from crying at the thought of being apart.
It was a quiet ride to the airport. Why do we have to live so damn close to PDX, I thought to myself as I interlaced his fingers with mine. A million emotions flooded through my veins as I wondered, did being in love with someone make this easier or harder? I immediately decided it was both. He got out of the car slowly. We both knew without saying it out loud that he was saying goodbye to a part of me, forever. That I would not come back the same person. The same Jamakea. Would I be someone he loved more or less? Burdened by 20 pounds of backpack containing only the essentials, I turned towards the airport entrance but not without looking back at his smile once more. For the millionth time, I thought, he’s the one.
To be continued.