Please bear with me here, I am going to be immensely open about my feelings: I have been having a hard time. Over two years ago, a series of tragic events — an unsuccessful rescue of an endangered animal, the end of a 4 year relationship, the death of a colleague, and a mass shooting on the other side of the world — awoke something inside of me, a voice, so tired of being helpless, finally decided to speak: do something, it said, do something.
So I did. I quit my job. I got off the grid. I traveled, I ran from people I loved, I ran towards people I loved. I searched for myself. I searched for something that would give me meaning, purpose. I searched for something. Do something, the voice echoed within me, do something.
I joined the Peace Corps — a US government-based organization sending volunteers around the world to help developing communities. I went to the Philippines; I had big, romantic ideas about saving the planet. I was going to teach a community to love the oceans, I was going to get a ban issued on plastic bags and create marine sanctuaries that benefited both the people and the environment — I was going to do something. And I failed. I hit potholes and hurdles and roadblocks that seemed to have no means of bypassing. I couldn’t connect with the culture, I struggled to see eye-to-eye with people destroying something I loved so much, no matter how prepared I thought I was, with every angle and approach to the problem I slid slowly, seamlessly into a dark spiral of despair, a place where the walls were so smooth and black I couldn’t see light, and I couldn’t climb myself out. I was a solo sailor in uncharted territory and I was terrified.
It’s not to say I didn’t have moments of joy, of bliss on this journey; I encountered incredible people. People that shone like stars in the early night sky, little lights of hope in my inconceivably dark world. And there were the moments in nature that rendered me gasping for my breath like a newborn — beauty so striking, I would be joyous and melancholic and nostalgic all at once. The sunrises especially got to me (and thus, I often shared them); the pureness of their colors, their light yet to be adulterated by the events of the day. At sunrise, I was alive in a different way — refreshed, hopeful — feelings that I struggled to keep with me as the hours ticked by in my windowless office. The ocean also changed me. When I swam in the sea, when I surrounded myself with life — natural and innocent — such as the sardine run, the tens of thousands of fish that I glided through in a massive school, my mind would be clear, my heart would feel full.
But something was starting to gnaw at me: beneath the beauty of the natural would was this undercurrent of doubt and fear, a persistent whooshing in my ears, a sort of background noise of ‘what if’s and ‘oh no’s. What if we can’t reverse the damage we’ve done..? Deep inside of me during every interaction with nature, I feared it would be my last. Would these fish be there when I returned? Would I swim again so freely with my beloved sea turtles? Or the majestic giant whale sharks? Or the coral reefs composed of 1,000s of colors and creatures… would they be there next year? Or next month? Or even tomorrow? The answers felt so — and still are — uncertain.
I was doing some things, but hardly enough. I certainly wasn’t doing all the romantic things I’d set out to do… and when I couldn’t get a small, environmental office to reduce their waste output, I cracked. Hope was not lost, but became buried deep within a crevice of my heart that had frozen over to protect itself from the seemingly inevitable heartache and doom that was descending upon me and the world I loved so much. I found myself gasping for air again, and not the refreshing, sunrise kind. I was losing my purpose, my fight, myself. I felt frustrated, sad, stuck. And I was helpless, all over again.
I quit the Peace Corps. I bailed on my contract a year early. I wasn’t doing anyone any good by staying — it was and always will be the right choice. I spent a few months in Indonesia trying to re-calibrate myself; connecting to nature in the jungles of Sumatera, cleansing my spirit in the temples of Bali, and rediscovering the renewing powers of sunlight and salt water on the Gili islands. I met more stars to fill the dark skies of my mind, I conducted seminars on the state of our oceans, I cleaned what beaches I could, I swam with sea turtles. But still my travel was tainted. Underneath the glorious gifts of nature and the company of wonderful companions, was that whooshing, that undercurrent. Everywhere I went, I saw trash; scattered along the side of the streets, littered like a minefield along some of the world’s most remote and beautiful beaches, strewn about in the ocean like poisoned bait, waiting for unsuspecting marine life to bite. I couldn’t turn it off — I cannot turn it off: this third eye that seeks out what is wrong with the world. Nor could I quiet this other voice inside of me, the one that knows just how much trouble we are in: do something, it pleads, do something.
I write this from a train on the other side of the world — Germany. I decided to postpone the rest of my Southeast Asian adventures until I was feeling more positive about the state of our planet. Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia; I wanted to enjoy the wonders and culture of these places purely, without that whooshing, without fearing for the survival of our planet and people. I needed to step away from the problem, explore it, examine it from the outside, before it consumed me fully. I needed to find solutions. I needed to reboot my system.
It has taken me so long to put these thoughts to paper because along with all the other things I lost in my fiasco in the Philippines, I lost my voice. I wanted to share my travels and traumas, be informative and inspirational, persistent but positive; desires rendered impossible when hope was hibernating so cleverly away. But I am here now, ready to find it.
For those who are wondering, I have no regrets in my decisions to both join and quit the Peace Corps. I needed to see firsthand the things I have read about in research, studied in school — the destruction of coral reefs, the devastation of overfishing, the multiple levels of pollution in our oceans. I needed to see it, experience it, to know just how big of a fight we are in for. And we need to fight. It is not just for the beauty of the big blue and the lives of the marine animals — that iconic sea turtle gliding seamlessly, soundlessly through salt water — it is for us, to breathe, to survive. We need the oceans and we need to fight for us.
Despite the darkness that has stained my often bright and beautiful blue world, I have not lost hope completely. Hope is like a little light, the pinprick of a star on the black sheet of the sky, and it is there ever so faint but alive, hiding in a crevice of my heart, reminding me that I am smart, and I am strong, and I am capable. Hope speaks to me still, reaching out to me with the tiniest of shimmers… a signal, a whisper. Do something, it says, do something.
So here I am.
This is my voice.
And do something, I will.