What does it take to change a life? A split-second. A simple realization can radically alter the course of an existence. I know this because it happened to me.
Last year I had everything going for me: owner of a beautiful house in the heart of San Francisco; successful professional with an exciting career in renewable energy and a high income; late-blooming athlete who worked-out 4 times a week and completed his first Olympic-distance triathlon and half-marathon; lucky husband of a loving and youthful wife whose beauty is only surpassed by her cooking, writing, acting and singing talents; faithful friend surrounded by cool city dwellers with diverse backgrounds and interesting lives… I was the kind of guy that annoys people because everything seems so perfect about his life. I even had a sweet deal with my employer where I only worked 4 days a week, half of them from home! There was only one problem: no matter how ideal my existence seemed I felt empty, lonely and depressed. I was defined by a set of labels (professional, homeowner, athlete, husband, friend…), and all my energy was spent keeping up with expectations and obligations. What really kept me going were regular workouts and dabbling with music (bass guitar lessons).
In December 2010 Mai and I went on a vacation in the Yucatán peninsula. After the usual tourist destinations (Tulum, Chichen Itza, Merida) the last part of our trip took us off the beaten path to a remote island called Isla Holbox (pronounce “ol-bosh”). No cars here: only golf carts and ATV’s. Roads are made of sand. Everything is within walking distance. The peace and stillness of the place immediately make me feel at ease. One morning Mai and I are lounging on beach chairs under the shade of a palapa, each listening to our own iPod music while admiring the beauty of the ocean. A man passes by on his bicycle, with a dog running next to him. I saw the same man the day before, and I am likely to see him again the next day. But today I feel different. Something shifts in me, a big knot in my belly and my heart disappears in a split-second. I am not defined by my past: every day is a new beginning. Although things may appear to be the same outside (the guy riding his bike), they can be completely different inside because my being is constantly changing. The secret is to have enough space and stillness to listen to my feelings. Suddenly my entire life feels like an illusion: the job, the house, the money, all the labels, all the expectations… Fuck this! I turn to Mai and tell her: “I could live in a place like this.” She smiles and responds: “I was thinking the same”. I smile back: “Let’s do it!”
Six months later we leave San Francisco on a 1-year journey to Latin America with our dogs and suitcases in the back of the car. Here is what I write in my journal on July 2nd 2011, the day we depart:
“So it took six months to get started on our dream adventure. Six months to sell our house, let go of our lives and identities driven by work and material possessions, to sell or donate most of these possessions and get ready to leave. I’ve never felt so alive. This was like removing many shackles one after the other until none remains and we are free to do whatever we want, to be whoever we want. We were the ones who put these shackles on, and only we had the keys to take them off.”
Two and a half months and 3,700 miles into the journey, I am writing these lines on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, and my old life seems like a distant memory. Since we arrived here every day appears the same on the surface but in reality each day is a totally new experience. Just like my martial arts practice in which the sequence always remains the same: I am the one who is new every single time, in my body and in my soul. And this makes all the difference.
Once in a while I panic at the thought that some day this journey will end: it seems inconceivable that I could come back to a life considered by most people as “normal”. But I know that the adventure is only starting, and what matters most is enjoying every moment of it. As Paolo Coelho said, “the journey is all you have”. Whatever happens next, this trip has already changed me deeply. I am past the point of no return, and the future is a new story for me to write.
Note: Read about our journey on my Travel Blog: Exploring Central America