I need to talk about Vietnam. I need to talk about the explosive nature of solo travel coupled with the soul-crushing concept of turning 30. I need to talk about how these two ideas came together in the past week. I need to talk about my nervousness, my panic, and my bravery. I need to talk about coming out on the other side of something great and actively feeling like some part of you has changed forever. I just need to talk about how good I feel.
I turned 30 last Monday on the 19th, and as a present to myself and to use my last week of vacation, I booked a ticket to Hanoi. I thought it would be pretty rad to be on a plane to another country on my 30th, and long story short, while it was an excellent decision, I also had a lot of moments throughout the week that made me truly understand just how powerful I am, how capable I am, and how much of my life I’ve spent scared of my own shadow.
I landed in Hanoi at 10:30am on the morning of June 19th, and was immediately accosted by a very, very pushy taxi driver, who ended up following me into the airport and I had to immediately get firm with. Most people who know me know I am not an aggressive person. I’m pretty passive, but this passive nature of mine wasn’t going to work in Vietnam, which was the first hard lesson I had to come to terms with. I had done some research about taking minibuses from the airport to the center of the city, but after I climbed into one, was quoted a much, much higher price than anything I had seen online, and felt the nervous edge of uncertainty creep into my heart, I made an executive decision to get on the newly-minted city bus that ran from the airport directly to the Old Quarter for $1.50.
The reality of my decision set in once I alighted from the bus into the Old Quarter of the very busy, very hectic capital city of Vietnam. There were motorbikes EVERYWHERE and to cross the street, you sort of just had to walk into traffic and hope people swerved around you, which they did. As a Kentucky girl who grew up in a city with a population of 33,000 people, being placed in any city with a population of over a million is a bit jarring at first, especially since Hanoi was just SO MUCH. There were so many smells, sights, people, motorbikes, bicycles, cars, people selling items on the street— so much. My only goal the first half hour was to make it to my hostel, which I did– quite easily, I might add. But, the panic in those first few minutes was so very real. So many people wanted me to buy things, so many people wanted to give me a ride somewhere, and I know the look of fear on my face and the pack on my back made me stick out so much more at the beginning of the week than I did at the end of the week. This was lesson two: I had to forge forward and I had to get over the panic and indecision that usually accompanies me whenever I have to make a decision that involves others. I did learn through this trip, though, that I am surprisingly adept at making decisions when they don’t involve others.
And make decisions I did. After spending two hot days in Hanoi, I changed my travel plans and left a day early to go to Cat Ba Island, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I made. I approached the people working at the hostel, told them I was leaving a day early, and that I needed transport to Cat Ba. The next morning, a combination of motorbike, buses, and boats dropped me off in the city of Cat Ba. I found my hostel, drank two beers, and then immediately went into the city to book two trips– one was for an all day cruise through Lan Ha and Ha Long Bay, and the other was a half day jungle trek through Cat Ba National Park.
Everyone on our excursion to Ha Long Bay was traveling in a group except for me. I was alone and I spent most of the morning listening to different languages on the boat, enjoying the sun, and being totally fucking floored by the environment around me. Seriously. Ha Long Bay is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life and all of the pictures I have, even the most gorgeous pictures on my camera roll, do not come close to doing the place justice– it is truly one of the most incredible things I have ever had the privilege to look at and experience in my life.
After visiting the largest fish farm in the bay, we stopped in the middle of a bunch of the limestone karsts, dropped anchor, and the tour guides invited us to go swimming– we could even jump off the boat! I hesitated. I was alone, I was going to have to jump in front of a bunch of strangers, and I was going to have to hoist myself back up the boat ladder when I was done swimming. But, I didn’t let any of that stop me. I slipped off away from everyone and I jumped off the boat into the water. A lot of people swam to two small beaches around the boat, but I just tread water in the bay, looking around at these huge, majestic rocks and I cried.
I cried because 5 years before, when I turned 25, I was convinced my life was over because I had graduated. Because I hated my job. Because I felt like a failure. Because I was so far in student loan debt. Because I wanted to die. 25 felt like the age where I should have had it all together and I remember the feeling of looking 25 in the face and being so ashamed of myself and how terrible my life felt at the time. Yet, at 30, a mere five years later, I was swimming in one of the most beautiful places on earth and I had the bravery to come and do it all alone. I have a job that I love. I have a fiance I love. I have friends that I love. I have myself, and for fuck’s sake, I love myself. All I kept saying to myself as I swam around the boat, looking at the water, the karsts, the sky is “Look what you’ve done, Kara. Look how far you’ve come. Look at what kind of life you’ve created.”
Let me tell you what kind of life I’ve created– I’ve created a life where I am starting to stand up for myself for the first time ever. I’ve created a life where I am going out and trying new, physical things because I do not feel limited by my weight or by my body. I have created a life where I am not terrified of the world around me, and even if things are scary and overwhelming sometimes, I WILL NOT QUIT. I have moved out of the state that I called home for 27 years and I have been living in an Asian country for almost 3 years. I have a created a life where I can book plane tickets and travel for a week by myself and make decisions and change plans and problem solve.
I’m glad 25 year old me survived.
Part of this trip through Ha Long Bay was also kayaking throughout the bay through three caves and into two lagoons. Because I was alone, I got paired up with the guide, and I was standing alone on the dock and one of the group members questioned why I wasn’t coming and I said “I’ve got to go with the guide– I’m alone,” and for some reason, I felt the tears of shame burn white hot in my eyes, but I pushed it down. I had nothing to be ashamed of–not even a little bit. I got in the fucking kayak. The guide asked if my group was 5 people, and I said, for the second time, “No, I’m alone,” and his response was “You’re so brave.” I smiled because I was. I am. I was initially nervous about my kayak skills and my endurance, but I stayed in the front for most of the trip. I got calluses on my hands from the oars. I got a sunburn on my knees. I navigated through three caves, looked for monkeys, and had kayak races with other people on our trip. I had fun and I did it without anyone else.
I find this most fascinating because there were times, in high school, when I wouldn’t speak in class because I was fat and too afraid I had the wrong answer. My first thought was always “I think I know this, but I am too fat to open my mouth. I don’t want to be wrong.” To go from feeling like you aren’t worthy of speaking in class to jumping off of a 4 meter boat in a bathing suit in front of a bunch of strangers and kayaking in just a bathing suit in front of strangers is just sort of staggering for me. I can’t imagine feeling that way now, but I know I did at one point in time.
The next day, I went on a half day jungle trek. I woke up at 7:00am for the third day in a row and I just did not want to do it. I felt wrecked from the day before, I knew it was hot outside, and I just didn’t want to be involved in so much physical activity. But, instead of canceling, instead of not going, I got up, packed up my pack, and went on the trek anyway.
It was hot. I drank four liters of water before we even got to the top. The mosquitoes were relentless. It was so hot. The mountain, if you can call it that, was only 221m, which is a third of the mountain my friends and I normally hike in Daegu. It felt so much higher and so much harder than Apsan. We kept going. We finally got to this orange viewpoint and I celebrated! We had made it. We could relax, enjoy the wind and the view, and start to make our way back down. But, our guide hit us with a “we’re going to that peak” and he pointed to another set of stairs and another challenge. The two other people I was with decided they had enough– they were going to stay at the viewpoint and I considered it. I almost quit. I wanted to quit. I wanted to be done with it. But, I looked at the peak. I looked at the distance I had already come. I looked at the guide and said “I’m going to do it.”
It was so fucking beautiful at the top of that mountain. The wind felt so good against my face, the sun was hot on my shoulders, and I had done it. I had pushed myself. I had pushed forward even when I wanted to quit, and that means more to me than anything. As a person who has always been overweight, the idea of doing physical activity, especially physical activity in scalding heat and humidity, is just not something I used to do, and yet, I had done it twice on this trip. I had pushed myself. I have changed.
This was the moment. I kept shouting “I did it! I did!” and the tour guide snapped my picture while I was celebrating to myself and I’m glad he did. I’m glad I can look at this picture when shit gets hard and I convince myself I am worthless. I’m glad I can look at this picture when my self-doubt becomes too much for me to talk myself out of, and I know it will happen again. My happiness, my bravery, my determination is all so evident in this picture and I found, with great joy, that no pictures were taken of me throughout my vacation, selfie or otherwise, that I hated. I found something to love about all of them– mostly, it was how happy I knew I was when I took the picture.
Turning 30 is supposed to be a clusterfuck and maybe for a lot of people, it is. I think, as women, we have this idea ingrained in our heads that if we aren’t mothers, wives, homeowners, career women, or some combination of the above when we reach this age that we are failures, that we have somehow missed the mark and that’s just not fucking true. I see so many different examples of women in my life that are 30 or older and we are all so different from each other and it is truly a beautiful thing. Turning 30 has made me so aware of who I am and what I have to be thankful for and all of the things I have to look forward to in the next decade of my life.
This trip was an awakening for me in a lot of ways. I had to deal with my fear, my insecurity, my panic, and my indecision and I did it. I was confronted with situations that seemed pretty daunting at the time, but I handled them. On top of that, I got to experience a limitless kind of joy that only came when I knew, when I truly knew, that if shit went south, I could take care of, and handle, myself and the situation. I’ve never felt like that before. I’ve always felt sort of inept and helpless, but that is pretty much bullshit and the absolute opposite of what I am. I am a fucking warrior. I was physically active on my vacation. I went out of my way to take on physical challenges, and looking back on those decisions, I never would have done that before. I have never done that before. I am a different person and I am just so fucking happy.
I got told I was old by a couple of young kids in a club in Hanoi the night of my 30th birthday and I kind of recoiled. I’ve never been seen as “old” before, but those fucking kids don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know what kind of power, what kind of energy, and what kind of hunger comes with 30. There is a deep need inside of me to keep changing and keep succeeding, to keep traveling and experiencing, and to keep growing. There is an urge within me to prove every negative thought about myself wrong and that is my intention while I take the journey to my 31st birthday– prove myself wrong at every single step, at every single point when my mind threatens to undermine my power.
So, tonight, in an attempt to get back to it, I went back to CrossFit for the first time in over 3 weeks. It was hot, sweaty, but I Rx’D a workout, which means I did it at the highest level of intensity, for the first time ever. I kicked ass tonight, even after 3 weeks of no CrossFit. Every time I think I cannot do something, I am going out of my way to prove that I can.
I am crying now. I am sitting in my house, listening to music, and crying because I am so proud of myself and what I have done and what I am going to do. Being terrified has always been such a part of my personality and of my though process and watching it slowly fall away and be replaced with bravery and a desire to try all kinds of new things is truly magnificent. I feel magnificent.
I am a powerful creature. I am a tree growing deep roots into the grounds of my own convictions and determination. I am brave and while I won’t say I am fearless, I am so much more aware of my limits. The funny shit is I am finding I have fewer and fewer limits the older I get.
Hi, 30. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Kara. I am unstoppable.