A Decision

Life is ridiculous, and you never know where your decisions will lead you. In an increasingly type-A culture that encourages everyone to plan, weigh pros and cons, and tread cautiously forward, we often forget that sometimes all you can do is dive in and hope for the best (even when it seems like you've only got a one-in-one-thousand shot at making it). Sea turtles taught me that.

It was almost exactly ten years ago—to the day—that I first saw a sea turtle hatchling shuffle its way to the Pacific (when I took the photo you see below). I'm standing now on the beaches of Oman in August of 2016, half-way around the world in the Middle East, watching another sea turtle crawl towards the waves of the Indian Ocean (where I took the intentionally similar photo you see above). I can't help but think back to August of 2006: I was working at a small environmental NGO, supporting conservation on the Baja California Peninsula, in Mexico.

Ten years ago, in Baja...

One of the jobs we had at that NGO was to promote the conservation of the east Pacific loggerhead sea turtle. East Pacific loggerheads are noteworthy because of their exceptionally long migrations: they hatch on the beaches of Japan, cross the Pacific ocean as hatchlings, and then—after 30 years in Baja—somehow return to Japan to nest on the same beaches where they were born. Their journey is dangerous; only one out of every thousand loggerheads grows old enough to lay eggs of its own.

During my first summer at this job, a Japanese researcher came to Baja to study these turtles. He reached out to the organization where I worked, and we planned a two-week tour for him. We visited a half-dozen fishing communities around the peninsula to study a variety of turtles—that's how I wound up seeing my first hatchling, on the tip of the Baja Peninsula in Cabo San Lucas.

A few days later, our group spent its final night on a secluded beach near a small fishing village, camping under the stars. There, after two weeks of struggling to communicate using mostly hand-gestures and awkward smiles, I asked our guest to teach me a word or two in Japanese. 

Dr. Kazunari Kaneda—I still remember his name—looked up, sipping on his beer. He stretched out his arm, and dragged his index finger through the sand: 天の川.

I asked him to explain, and he pointed at the canopy of lights above us. "Amanogawa," he said; "Heaven's River." He was pointing at the Milky Way. 

Right there on that beach I made a seemingly insignificant, and rather ridiculous, decision: I was going to learn Japanese, and I didn't care how, or who would teach me, or how long it would take. I didn't realize upon starting my "studies" (on my own, using the internet) that in order to learn Japanese in earnest, I would eventually quit my job, move to Japan, spend almost all my meagre savings, and live hand-to-mouth for a year, washing dishes to make ends meet. 

In many ways, that ridiculous decision to start learning Japanese changed my life. That choice led me to quit my job and move to Japan, which subsequently led me to start graduate school when I got back, which then led me to apply to a fellowship, which ultimately landed me with the job that brought me to work in Oman. And it is here in the Middle East that, ten years later, I'm looking at another hatchling crawl toward the sea. I can't help but think of that other turtle—half a world away—and how it laid at the beginning of this unlikely path.

This story is also ridiculous because I'm not normally impulsive. Most of the choices I've ever made have either been sober calculations, carefully considered, or a leisurely stroll down the proverbial path of least resistance. In fact, even every move that came after the initial choice to learn Japanese (i.e. actually moving to Japan, starting graduate school, applying for the fellowship) was a choice I made because an easy, accessible opportunity presented itself to me. But the actual decision to start the whole process, to learn Japanese to begin with? That was different; it was a completely out-of-context, spur-of-the-moment, "screw it, I'm doing this" impulsive commitment. And I'm glad I stuck with it; I might not have even started if I'd thought about how ridiculous this story would sound when I told it.

But I tell this story again and again. I tell it to remind myself that sometimes you don't choose. Or rather, you do choose; but you choose for reasons you don't understand. And sometimes those seemingly ridiculous choices, perhaps especially those choices, are the ones that change your life.

I don't believe in fate, or signs. This fact makes it quite fitting that another surprising, and equally ridiculous part of this story is the name of the town, of the fishing village where Dr. Kaneda pointed up at the stars. It wasn’t until many years later when—in the middle of a "study abroad" presentation I delivered to a room of 300 Japanese students—I suddenly realized that the name of that town was, had been, and still is Punta Abreojos: "Eye-Opening Point." Yes, something akin to "the place where your eyes open" just happens to be the name of the stretch of beach where I looked up at the Milky Way and (unwittingly) chose to change my life.

Indeed, I tell this story to remind myself that you can never know which choices will be the ones that transform your future. So sometimes, like the sea turtle, you just look ahead, and shuffle your way towards the unknown currents of a vast ocean, hoping for the best. It is absolutely ridiculous when you really think about it.

Safe travels.