There were earthquakes in Tokyo the night before I left for Cambodia.
It was the summer after I’d graduated college and I planned to spend a month overseas, teaching English to a small group of children at an orphanage in Phnom Penh. My family accompanied me half of the way there, vacationing at my grandparents’ house in Tokyo for a few days before my departure.
We shopped, ate at our favorite noodle shops, strolled the city streets. At night, I slept in my uncle’s childhood bedroom, on a soft mat laden with blankets. I slept soundly there, in a house I knew well from many visits to Japan. It was quiet—very still, even in the middle of the city. But on that night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I lay awake, palms pressed to the ground.
It was shaking.
Always a bit superstitious, I spent the better part of that night, eyes closed but unable to sleep, counting tiny, nearly imperceptible earthquakes. I was afraid.
The next morning, I boarded the plane.
Cambodia was, to put things lightly, an adventure. On my first night, I was offered snake, skinned and coiled in a bucket, for dinner. I lived in a very poor neighborhood where few people spoke English, and I was warned never to walk alone. I found myself stranded in a flood one night. On another, I woke to someone trying to break down my guestroom door. Meanwhile, the organization through which I’d arranged the trip was a non-presence.
I was lucky enough to be assigned a roommate, an Australian girl my age whom I loved, but still, I was terrified to be by myself—and, as a result, I almost never was. I felt vulnerable and in danger. Whether I was being unreasonable or blowing things out of proportion, I wasn’t sure. But the truth was, my time in Phnom Penh rattled me. I loved teaching at the orphanage and met wonderful people wherever I went; still, I experienced fear there on a level I hadn’t known possible.
At one point, in a sort of half-delirious state, it occurred to me that perhaps I’d sensed I was in for a hard time before I’d even arrived; that the earthquakes I’d felt in Tokyo were warnings of the trauma to come.
But I went anyway. Afterward, I felt I understood the meaning of the phrase, “lived to tell the tale.”
2012, as I’ve written many times, was, for me, a year of challenges. A part of me assumed that 2013 would be less tumultuous, but after a January full of ups and downs, I’m realizing that I may have been mistaken. Something tells me this year is going to test me.
That’s a scary thought. It’s thrilling, too.
Often, the Earth feels unsteady beneath my feet. In a way, I’m sensing tiny earthquakes every day. The challenge is not allowing them the power to paralyze.
I still remember shuffling onto the plane in Narita, the morning after my sleepless night. I felt uneasy, shaken, in a way that I couldn’t quite explain—or justify. To distract myself, I concentrated on the movement of my feet, one step at a time. Everything will be okay, I thought, even if it’s not.
I tell myself similar things as I face the coming year.
Breathe deeply. Focus, or try to. Embrace adventure. Keep walking.