Thursday, April 10, 2014

Taking Off The Training Wheels

A few weeks ago, I embarked on a personal adventure. I took a trip with a friend. Not "just" a trip, but a trip out of the United States. A trip that required me to stop postponing the hassle and expense in updating my passport. A trip to a place I hadn't heard of before she selected it at the end of January. A trip to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

I will be the first to admit that I've led a rather sheltered life. Mexico is the only foreign country that has hosted me. Oh and Canada. I'm pretty much a domestic traveler. So when my friend suggested Punta Cana in the DR, my response was a resounding "Huh? What? Where?" Not a very enthusiastic one, at first actually. But then, the day she mentioned it to me was frigid, blowing and snowing so when she told me it was sunny place in the Caribbean ... warm with a beach, I was all about it.

So, I got that passport photo taken and completed the application. And then I called the Post Office to make the appointment necessary to earn the United States approval to leave the country. My passport arrived into my hands in record time and I was good to go. Guess the U.S. was ready to enjoy a few quiet days without me. Packed light ... shorts and t-shirts, bathing suits, sundresses, flip flops, suntan lotion, my iPod and about 5 books. 

Okay ... kinda light. 

We arrived in Punta Cana at about 9pm. It was pitch black. We climbed down the stairway onto the tarmac and took a tram to the receiving area, where we paid $10 to enter the country. We collected our luggage (well, I collected my hot pink Guess suitcase tho' my friend's luggage was "misplaced" for a bit ... delivered to our hotel later that evening, much to her relief) and we boarded a shuttle to our resort. 

Now here is where it got real for me. I am an adventurous spirit. I like new experiences and places. I enjoy trying new things. Okay .... wait ... stop ... reverse ... I'm gonna make a confession here. I like to think of myself as adventurous. I like others to think of me as daring and creative and fearless. I want them to see me as brave. I can be that ... some of the time. I can project that and make you believe it's real. But ... I gotta tell you ... it doesn't always come naturally to me. I can very happily cling to the training wheels ... hide in the corner and stay silent. I like it there. It feels safe.

But here I was ... primed for the adventure of a lifetime. My heart was pounding in my chest as I boarded that shuttle ... no idea what was in store for me next.

You see, sometimes I make a determined choice to force myself out of the safety of my comfort zone. I want to choose adventure ...  challenges ... opportunities I might be tempted to shy away from. I take a few moments and give myself a little pep talk. And then I leap.

But, I have to admit I was a little nervous boarding this shuttle in the darkness and glad there were others from the good old US of A on board. I was a out of my comfort zone and weary from the travel. But then ... I gazed out the window at the palm trees and rustic manner of life in the DR and discovered the magnitude of stars surrounding me. 

Stars are everywhere, I know. But these stars were different. The constellations were in different places that close to the Equator. And in that darkness they were so bright. I couldn't stop staring. I was like a kid in the candy shop, nose pressed against the window. They were brilliant. Unlike my home in metro Detroit, there are fewer lights to block them. So, they seemed huge and numerous, glittering in the deep, deep dark navy sky.

During the day, I explored the resort. I did yoga and aerobics on the beach. I watched the crazy peacocks. I took walks on velvety sand. I swam in the salty azure blue sea, waves leaping over me ... splashing, nurturing and caressing me with soft warmth. I tried new foods (mostly successfully), President beer, European style coffee and various "specialty drinks." I napped. I read. I walked. I floated and swam. I danced. I reached out and took every moment by the fist to make the most of these 4 days in the Dominican Republic. I was gonna be Brave, darn it. I wasn't gonna "miss a thing" to quote Aerosmith.

Pretty good. I mastered the fear, I went, I explored. That earns good marks, yes? But that wasn't quite enough. I had long dreamed of swimming with the dolphins. So, I took another deep breath and leapt, booking my trip.
On the day of the excursion, I boarded a bus with a Spanish speaking driver. I was the only person on that bus. Just me. I rode out through rural Punta Cana into the wild and "rustic" overgrown area that was known as Dolphin Island. I was the first one there ... alone with people from a culture I knew little to nothing about. Then others arrived ... couples from other countries who kept commenting on how Brave I was for undertaking this adventure all on my own.

But on this trip, I had determined not to let fear get the best of me. So, as they praised my poise out there all on my own, I just smiled. It was MY adventure that way. It wasn't dependent on anyone else. I liked that. It was important to me.
Swimming with the Dolphins was a dream of mine and I was all in. So when we rode the boat to the dolphin area, I laughed as the spray hit me. When the staff said swim out to the middle of the compound, I swam. When the staff said hold on tight, I held on. When the staff said reach out, I reached out. I snorkeled with reef sharks and stingrays too. Words cannot express the rush of emotions ...

Excited and scared ... thrilled and terrified ... but overall ... Bliss.

My time in Punta Cana was amazing ... I blasted through the safety of my traditional comfort zone. I believe to grow we have to do that. To truly live, we must explore and challenge  ourselves to experience life -- all of it. We have to know when to try new things. When to take the bus even though we might feel that pang of fear. When we should hold on  even though our heart is racing. When we should let go. Life brings so many beautiful gifts our way. I don't want to miss them because I'm afraid of them ... of the consequences ... of the fallout ... of the experience.

So many people tend to spend their time anxious. They try to discover some secret knowledge to cue them in so they can know what will come next.  Prepare and plan every experience. They make lists of things to do and goals to meet. They have expectations .... things need to happen their way and meet articulated timeframes. They need to know what is coming.

If I'm honest, part of me is like that. It's safe. I like to look forward to things ... I like plans and goals. But what I've realized recently, is that so many unexpected joys have come my way from moments that weren't written in my planner. Shows not on my radar to audition for. People I didn't expect to love so much. Laughter and absolute bliss that arise when I've done things spontaneously. These joys came from surprise encounters or experiences and are some of my greatest times in my life so far.

But and this is something I'm only beginning to understand ... The only way we will truly know joy is if we Open Our Heart ... Release the Fear ... and Walk Into the Unknown.

My unknown was going to another country, climbing onto a bus all by myself and going on an adventure to swim with the dolphins. What is your unknown? Your fear? Can you let it go? Can you open your heart to what might come instead of working from a list? So much can be discovered when you take a few moments to just look out into the sky and notice the stars and wait, with your Open Heart, for unexpected bliss that might come your way. 

I don't know about you, but I don't want to miss life. I want to open my heart. I don't want to be afraid of getting hurt. Oh, it isn't always gonna end well. I've known disappointment and pain from opening my heart, too. And I'm very sure I'm not done with pain. But I don't want to play it safe and miss life-altering, dynamic, exciting moments. On my journey, I have known incredible highs. And I hope there are more highs to come. But overall ... I've decided ... well, I guess I'd rather fall then spend all my time with training wheels on my bike.

                                                                                                               -- Jenni