I stood at the edge of the wooden roof deck impatiently waiting for my turn to jump off into the not-so-clear green water of Ha Long Bay. Two stories of Junk boat was below me. A few of my new friends splashed and laughed beneath, occasionally tossing words of encouragement up into the air like frisbees waiting to be caught. “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “Do a back flip mate,” were the only sentences I could comprehend. Moving my toes to the edge of the brown planks, I reached back for the white peeling railing that looked less than trustworthy.
I had been struggling with sea sickness from the reckless combination of a hangover, rocking salt water waves and cigarette smoke for over an hour now. Despite the height, jumping was the closest cure and there was nothing I wanted to do more.
My big toes nakedly hung off the edge. I released the security of the railing, now my right hand wrapped around my musty, brown, tube-top bathing suit and my left plugged my nose. An incredibly dorky, yet practical position for jumping. I could feel the heat of the sun radiating off my back and shoulders. Taking in one last deep breath I closed my eyes, trusted the words of encouragement, caught that frisbee and jumped, off the boat and into the warm Vietnamese air.
Ha Long Bay was a place my sister and I had been anticipating for about a year. For eleven months we worked as nannies and stayed in on weekends waiting to splurge on a summer of backpacking Southeast Asia. The bay in the city of Ha Long, known as the “descending dragon bay” was the icon of our trip. Images of sharp, sporadic, limestone cliffs became the desktop to our computers, the backgrounds of our phones and the photo representing our count-down until May 27, 2013, the day we took flight from JFK airport. It showed the freedom that crept closer to our reach as the months faded by.
When you jump, life as you understand it changes. Your senses are enhanced, you become more alert. The sun becomes brighter. You can taste the salt evaporated in the air, you can see the bright lime-green moss, the noise of buzzing crickets surrounds you. You are aware of the 2,000 islets in the distance that stand proud after 500 million years of formation. The mucky screen that has been obstructing your point of view is lifted and it’s like you are now looking through a freshly Windexed window.
You’re free, in the moment, the shackles you didn’t realize you wore vanish and you gracefully fly through the sky, weightless, over the sea that looks like a million diamonds strewn across a blue blanket.
Friends encourage you to take that leap, but wait below to ensure your safety. In this moment, I’m happy, I’m myself, loving life without fear of death. I know who I am and I am confident in my abilities. I have fallen in love, with the people, with myself, with the world I am in.
Then before you know it the free-fall is over, and your feet kick through the sheet of clear water, the same water that was a not-so-clear green color seconds before. You are submerged by the cool, blue refreshing wash of the ocean. The marine world, one completely different from your own, a place you cannot stay forever but is a surreal gift while you are there.
You know it is quickly approaching, it is romantically mesmerizing but over too fast.
My cousin asked me if she should go backpacking through South America on her own for 2 months this summer. I told her that when I was in Vietnam, I stood at the edge of a wooden roof deck. Don’t look down, just jump.
The answer to why we travel is different for everyone.
According to Pico Iyer, “We travel, initially to lose ourselves; and we travel next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate.”
My sister and I thought we were traveling to see the world but we quickly realized that our trip was about how we interpret the world and how our souls fit in it. In mid jump we came to realize how little possessions matter and how much more there is to life.
For anyone planning on backpacking through Southeast Asia, I would recommend bringing nothing but an empty backpack and possibly a few toilet paper rolls. Anything you need you can buy there and the less you have the more free your fall is.