Aspirations of a Young Girl

Submitted into Contest #208 in response to: Write a story about someone living vicariously through someone else.... view prompt


Adventure Creative Nonfiction Inspirational

What had I done? Should I even be here? I sat down and clicked my metal seat belt clasp into place. From my economy class window seat aboard the Qatar Airways B77W aircraft, I saw ground personnel signaling with their bright orange batons for surrounding planes to reverse from the terminal. Their beacon wing and underbelly lights all aglow under the night sky. Each taxied down the tarmac, preparing for takeoff. My aircraft would eventually follow.

 Boarding had just commenced for my flight. We weren't airborne yet, but I felt sick. I wanted to throw up. My heart was racing with overwhelming internal fear. Each breath felt heavy and labored, and my legs shook uncontrollably. Rationally, I knew this was a full-blown panic attack. A fight or flight type response due to my fragile insecurities. I kept telling myself, "Breathe....breathe." 

 My eyes glanced up at the passengers descending the aisles. This added to my trepidation. None of them appeared to fit my "profile." None of them, I bet, were middle-aged women who had left their husbands and children at home temporarily seeking "adventure" and "purpose" so far away from home. Was I selfish to want this? Was I out of my mind? What kind of mother was I to leave her children at home for ten days? Internally, I felt like a fraud, a phony, and an imposter. Was this my mid-life crisis? I didn't know any women of my age group that would entertain the idea of traveling solo to the other side of the world. This was not a vacation to the sun but to the poorest country in South Asia, and the last thing I wanted was for anyone to think it was "poverty tourism." Exploiting the poor to grab some quick photos was not part of my agenda.

  The flight was to Kathmandu, Nepal, via Qatar, departing from London Heathrow Airport. I caught a glimpse of my fellow passengers at the boarding gate, so it was no surprise who I would share my flight with. But now, they were cramming their belongings into the overhead luggage compartments around me, and it became all too real. These people were mountaineers making their way to Mt Everest Base Camp and the surrounding peaks of the Himalayas. They came with their duffel bags, parkas, hiking boots, crampons, helmets, and various climbing apparatus that couldn't be, for whatever reason, part of their checked luggage. These were the same people you would expect to see on a History Channel documentary. Or perhaps on the cover of the famous, yellow-bordered magazine National Geographic. The modern-day counterparts to Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay.

 Minutes later, another wave of passengers filed passed, each scrutinizing the small aisle numbers and letters overhead to locate their assigned seats. Judging by their clothing and personal belongings with the all-telling, sewn-on embroidered logo patches, they appeared to be aid workers or volunteers from relief agencies. Perhaps non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Traveling to Nepal, they would assist with infrastructure, agriculture, and environmental issues, quality education, the right to food, healthcare, and helping to eradicate poverty. Nepal, one of the world's poorest and least developed countries, relies on international aid. 

  My fellow passengers were the people I had idolized since childhood. I had lived vicariously through them and romanticized the lives they led for as long as I could remember. Their sense of adventure, dedication, and selflessness was part of what I wanted to be when I "grew up." By purchasing my airfare, I was now face to face with the very same people I looked up to and was in awe of. I suddenly felt tiny in comparison. These were giants in my eyes. Royalty of sorts. Leaders. Risk-takers. Humanitarians. The elite. Those who had determination, perseverance, and discipline. They rejected convention and faced hardships. Before me, in this confined aircraft, were my heroes.

  Desperate to leave my surroundings while growing up in small-town America, I knew, even as a pre-teen, I didn't belong. There had to be more to life beyond my front door. I fantasized about slipping effortlessly into exotic, colorful landscapes, speaking different languages, and discovering new foods. To Interact with people of all backgrounds and soak up their stories. The joys, accomplishments, pain, and sorrows. I was prepared to be taken out of my comfort zone. I wanted to hear, witness, and be part of the stories of the human race. I yearned to collect memories and be a storyteller myself.

 My daydreams took me out of my body to visit obscure destinations such as Morocco. I visualized myself rambling around the souks of Marrakesh, inhaling a plethora of alluring and curious spices, herbs, and delicate rose petals piled high in woven baskets; Snake charmers performing around me in the open-air market, hypnotizing not only their reptiles but mesmerizing the crowds there to watch. Seeing traders haggle with tourists over handmade Berber rugs, colorful slippers, and tanned leather goods. Dodging the donkeys, camels, and goats in the medina, I meander the narrow, complex labyrinth of backstreet alleyways to uncover men smoking hookahs. I smell saffron-infused tajin and other local delicacies as I sip traditional mint tea from miniature glass cups and savor delicious North African pastries at a cafe.

 Next stop, off to hear the beautifully eerie sounds of early morning calls to prayer that reverberated from the minarets of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Stepping inside, I am taken aback by the stunningly vibrant shades of blue ceramic tiles displaying intricate geometric patterns dating back to the Ottoman Empire. Leaning in, I see the details of the brush strokes left by the artisans so long ago.

  Then perhaps, a trip to the Maasi Mara National Reserve in Kenya, where I would go on a photographic safari to witness the wildebeest migration, herds of elephants, zebras, hippos, and ferocious big cats as they roamed the grassy plains and approached the waterholes. I envisioned myself sitting amongst the Maasai tribesmen and women adorned in traditional red and plaid Shuka garments with spectacular beaded collar necklaces. The Warriors, in their ostrich feather headdresses and carrying their mighty shields, all summon me to join them in their dancing and jumping rituals as the sun set on the African plains.

  I fully admit I identified as a young "Walter Mitty" character. I daydreamed of a spectacular existence that took me out of the boredom and monotony of my young life and allowed me to live fully. The wanderlust bug had bitten me by living through the stories and work of journalists, writers, artists, anthropologists, adventure seekers, scholars, and researchers. I became fascinated with cultures, languages, and belief systems different from my own. I wanted to observe Dian Fossey with the Silver Back Gorillas of Rwanda, learn the Haka ceremonial Maori dance of New Zealand, and visit the Amazon Rain Forest to witness the spectacular flora and fauna and indigenous peoples.

 The bedroom walls of my twelve-year-old self weren't plastered with posters of Donny Osmond or David Cassidy; they were adorned with travel posters. Ones displayed in travel agencies promoting tour operators and airlines and the destinations they flew to. Bookshelves and dressers proudly displayed the souvenirs and tchotchkes that family members had brought back from vacations.

"Tiger Beat," the teenage magazine, was replaced by "Let's Go" travel guidebooks I had bought with pocket money earned through weekly chores and babysitting. Each paperback book in my collection became worn and dog-eared from pouring over each page. I'd highlight and note every detail about a specific region to memorize facts for future use. I was confident. I WOULD see those places. It wasn't a question of "if" but "when." I wouldn't rule out any travel opportunities or destinations. I would gladly welcome volunteering on a farm with an Israeli Kibbutz, looking after children as an au pair, trekking Machu Picchu, or re-tracing the footsteps of French artist, Paul Gaugin in Tahiti if it brought fascinating experiences with it.

 In junior high, I had it all planned out. Or so I thought. I wanted to join the Peace Corps or be put to work in a refugee camp in southeast Asia to assist the Vietnamese boat people fleeing the country after the war had ended. (My nightly tv viewing of the international news was inundated with stories of the refugee crisis then.) It didn't occur to me that I would need a technical degree, practical experience, or exceptional skills in disaster relief and humanitarian crises. I assumed I would figure that out when the time came, and if I was passionate about the work, I'd be a sure fit. Who wouldn't want someone like me? My school guidance counselor had a different take on things. When discussing my ambitions, he raised his eyebrows and delivered an extended, drawn-out response that neither "career choice" would ever pay any money. Feeling dejected at that response, I thought, "So much for humanitarian efforts and saving the world."; everything was all about money, and I was quickly told I needed to be more practical with my career choices.

 The disappointing reaction didn't deter me. Three years later, with my parents' unwavering support, I applied and was accepted as an exchange student in Japan for one year. I lived with a traditional host family in a small, rural village surrounded by rice fields at the base of the majestic Mt Fuji—a picture-perfect postcard setting. I attended a Japanese high school wearing the traditional school uniform required of all students and learned the language through total immersion and book study. Weekly, I participated in tea ceremony lessons with a local master. Just one of the many rare opportunities afforded to me that few Westerners have privy to. That year in Japan brought me what I had been searching for. It gave me the skill sets that have served me well throughout my life—self-reliance, trust, acceptance, patience, and maintaining humor when frustration sets in. It was one of my life's most challenging but significant years, and it was just the start, a taste of what would come.

 Upon returning to the US and finishing school, I started working full-time. I interspersed it with teaching South American migrant farm workers English as a second language, volunteering as a "big sister" to a Vietnamese refugee boy and befriending his grandmother, and tutoring a Japanese college student with her English. When my savings accumulated enough, I set my sights on traveling to Ireland, Scotland, and England. Great Britain wasn't such a cultural stretch from the US, but it had history and new territory to explore. Little did I know, it was also my destiny. I married a Brit years later, settled in London, and had two wonderful children. With its location, living in the UK provided cheap and accessible travel to the continent. When time and finances allowed, I found ways to explore new vistas with my family and saw the world's wonders through my children's eyes.


My passion for learning about and participating in other cultures remained strong while living abroad as an expat. I became involved with a charity that built schools and brought education to the poorest regions of Sri Lanka and Nepal. I boldly decided to sponsor a school in the Himalayas with the spare pocket money I had each month. In doing so, I was beckoned to travel to Nepal. Holding fundraisers with all proceeds going directly to "my" school and the numerous other Nepali charities that caught my attention, I eventually scrimped and saved my own money to visit the Himalayan kingdom and "get my hands dirty." I packed my weight in school supplies, educational resources, toiletries, and over-the-counter medicines. All the "wish list" items sought after from the West.

 My itinerary meant making an arduous trek by vintage Army Jeep driven by a local driver through perilous mountain terrain. The air grew colder the higher we ascended, with breathtaking scenery throughout. The landscape was dotted by tea plantations and colorful Buddhist prayer flags strung up in the remotest of areas, torn and flapping in the wind. After several hours of maneuvering the twisty, dangerous cliffside dirt roads, I reached my destination and received an unexpected hero's welcome from the entire village. Men who were farmers, women carrying small babies in slings made from saris, and elderly grandparents all turned out to see this Western woman in one of the most remote places on Earth. Charity officials and teachers proudly showed me their school, introduced me to each child dressed in a tidy blue school uniform, and invited me to listen to them as they performed songs. Crowds of students gathered around me, all chatting and excited, as I unpacked my bag and presented each child with a canvas tote filled with pencils, pens, crayons, paper, sweets, and random small party favor type gifts such as balloons, bubble bottles, and puzzles. Far from being a wealthy woman, my gifts were a small gesture. But the tears of happiness, smiles, and pure joy that radiated from the students and their families rippled through me. Parting ways after nearly a week was highly emotional. Scores of children followed behind my Jeep, running as quickly as possible, some barefoot, waving and smiling from ear to ear to send me off. 

  Before leaving Kathmandu, I spent the last few days visiting and staying at orphanages and homes for trafficked youths. I witnessed an incredible Nepali soup kitchen feeding the homeless, including the city's vulnerable street children (often victims of child labor and exploitation), and providing essential medical services to them.

  Most notably, I visited an end-of-life care ashram established by Mother Teresa at Pashupatinath Hindu Temple. There, my attention was drawn to hospice and palliative care being given and the open-air cremation ceremonies on the banks of the Bagmati River. It was a profound experience to observe. Deeply moving and powerful. It changed the trajectory of my life. Hospice work became my calling. After several excursions to Nepal, I returned home to become a caregiver to the dying- strangers and my own loved ones; qualified as a hospice death doula and made it my mission to hold workshops and do motivational speaking on the importance of living life to the full with our finite time left on Earth. Urging others to evaluate their lives, go "outside the box," and DREAM. It is my deep belief that synchronicities occur for a reason. If I had not lived vicariously through others who inspired me and hadn't fantasized about visiting far-off distant lands and people, would I have ever known or experienced all that I have in my life?

 I owe everything to the incredible souls who sowed the seeds and encouraged me to daydream through their travels, work, research, artistic endeavors, and adventurous pursuits. Those who introduced me to cultures and people that helped me understand the world better. Who dreamt of something more, took chances, and embraced the opportunities, causes, and difficulties. Those who saw the beauty and meaning of life and shared it with me.

July 27, 2023 15:41

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