My toes dug deep into the cold sand; my overgrown traveler’s hair swept carelessly across my naked back. The night was dark except for the sky, where the brightest stars I had ever seen gleamed above me brilliantly. I lay back in the sand to observe their dance while, behind me, towering palm trees swayed in the breeze.

I could hear the Pacific waves ripping toward the shore, slowly crashing along the shoreline. I closed my eyes to whisper a prayer of gratitude. I wondered how much of the scene I could bottle up and bury in my soul.

Somewhere in the distance, my husband walked the shore. We were on this secluded beach because of our new friend, Sergio. A native Costa Rican and self-proclaimed turtle whisperer, he had offered to show us a nesting ground. I was skeptical, as it wasn’t nesting season, but Sergio seemed genuine, so we trusted him. If anything, it was one last adventure before returning home.

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Twelve months earlier, my husband and I boarded a plane to Europe. In only a few months’ time, we had quit our jobs, sold our house, and packed our 60-liter backpacks for a year of travel.

Drowning is the only analogy I can think of to describe the life we left behind. After graduating college and marrying young, we built our empire on cushy jobs and suburbia. We had traded our youth for salaries and our marriage for a DIY kitchen remodel. One by one, we were checking off the boxes of societal expectations. After four years, we could hardly breathe. Our world revolved around desk jobs and Netflix binges. I didn’t recognize my life or my husband, and I certainly didn’t recognize myself.

Our decision to leave was a Hail Mary in the final play — a grasping for air and last-ditch attempt to save our marriage and our souls. It was a chance to change our course, to swim upstream and reroute ourselves to a road less traveled. So we went back to our roots and asked the big questions: Who are we? What do we love? And where do we thrive?

Fitz Roy, Argentina

The answers to these questions sat in dusty photo albums, hidden beneath the bills on our coffee table. Rwanda. South Korea. Belize. Germany. All places we had lived, worked, and traveled while in college. They reminded us of who we once were and who we still wanted to be. So, we started saving every dollar, then sold everything we owned and bought the cheapest one-way tickets we could find. A few months later, we boarded a plane to Madrid.

Over the next year, we played in the rolling waves of the Mediterranean Sea and hiked the snow-covered peaks of Scandinavia. We learned of the dark history of Poland and sipped holy beer in Belgian fields. We watched elephants play in Thailand’s rice terraces, and we learned how to reach heaven in the Himalayan mountains.

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Then, Colombia seduced us with her tranquil language and intoxicating cups of coffee, and Patagonia opened our eyes to the true meaning of “wild.” We rode in trains, planes, boats, and cars. For weeks, we lived in a van on the Chilean coast, eating fresh fish from the same ocean we bathed in. We trekked high, and we dove deep — both physically and spiritually.

Traveling for an entire year destroyed us in the best way possible. It was swift and steady, and, all the while, we worked tirelessly to chip away at the empire we no longer wanted. We would never be the same.

Were we privileged to travel? Of course. But that didn’t keep the journey from beseeching us, imploring us to open our eyes and see the world in new ways. Our tongues tasted unfamiliar languages and flavors; our ears heard the most beautiful melodies among the dancing stars. We lived, we thrived, we found ourselves, and we fell back in love with one another.  

And we hit rock bottom. We experienced death and grief, sorrow and fear. We fought for and against our marriage. We stripped down, naked and exposed, with all our scars and wounds revealed. It was hard and painful; the truths of conversation rolled in as frequently as the tide. But when we surfaced for air, we found something new. We learned how to go deep and live in grace within our marriage. We made love and plans; we renewed promises and vows. We watched our walls crumble, and then we picked up our hammers to rebuild in new, better ways.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

I thought about it all that night on the beach in Costa Rica, my feet blanketed with sand. The warm water foamed at my ankles, kissing my legs and washing my soul with promises from the sea. I felt abundantly rich.

I found my way to my husband’s side and sat next to him, leaning my head on his shoulder. It wasn’t long before we heard footsteps running toward us and saw a shadow appear in the distance.

“Come!” Sergio whispered, before turning around and disappearing into the night.

We hurried to follow, careful not to step on the translucent crabs and broken coconut shells scattered along the beach.

Photo by Mitchel Lensink

“Over here!” he beckoned from a grove of palm trees a hundred meters away. His small frame looked like it might topple over from the force of his gestures.

We approached the grove, curious. Sergio bent down in the sand.

“Look,” he mouthed without a sound. We followed his eyes to a faint movement in the dirt. A tiny flipper erected from the earth, followed by a marble-shaped head with two sleepy eyes. I could hardly believe what I was seeing.

Dropping to my knees, I watched as the newborn lifted his delicate face to the sky. He swallowed his first breath of air and greeted the world around him. I felt like my heart was going to burst right there among the palm trees.

Why was I chosen to witness this new life? I thought. Not as part of a tour or on an organized trip, but with my husband, our friend Sergio, and the sea.

The final night of our journey was this baby’s first breath of life — both the end and the beginning, a most brilliant antithesis. “Welcome, little one,” I whispered with tear-filled eyes. As if waiting for my words, the baby turtle used his fins to push himself from the nest. Eight brothers and sisters soon followed.

Sergio was ecstatic and overwhelmed. He had been protecting these babies from poachers for months, and now he spoke life over the infants while smoothing out the sand for their journey to the water.

We joined him, clearing rock and debris from the hatchlings’ path. They hustled and shuffled — not even five minutes old but already fearless. They understood their purpose; they knew who they were. Within seconds of their birth, they heard and obeyed the call of the ocean — the invitation to their journey. With no time to waste, they set off.

Over the course of our final night, we witnessed the hatching of about 15 turtles. I will never forget the sense of pride I felt as the waves swept each baby out into the ocean. “¡Buen Viaje!” we shouted, waving off each tiny shell as it disappeared into the tide.

It was nearly 1 a.m. by the time we left the beach. We had to be up again in just a few hours to catch our flight home, with grains of sand still stuck to the bottoms of our feet.

Ruta 40, Argentina

But even after we landed, the turtles stayed with me. For months, I imagined their tiny fins swimming through the sea, among all the dangers. But despite the current, the predators, and the physical demand, they never turned around — they kept swimming onward. They ventured far and deep, away from the comfort of their nests and the protection of palm trees. They were brave, allowing the waves to carry them through the most violent of storms. They scrambled — toward the water, toward uncertainty. And they plunged, entering the sea even in the dark, silent night.

Why?

Because their lives were never meant for the shore. And neither was mine.

Related:  The Long Way Home: Part Two
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Kayti Christian
Kayti Christian is a writer and sustainable tourism activist hailing from Colorado. With 30+ stamps in her passport, she is passionate about sharing authentic stories from around the world, as well as finding depth and meaning in normality. She is currently living in London while pursuing her MA in Creative Nonfiction Writing.