How The Tsunami Changed My Life (For The Better)
Ten years ago right now I was sitting in the Chicago O’Hare international terminal waiting to board a flight to Dublin. It was the day after Christmas and I remember being freezing cold, sitting on hard metal chairs, watching the constant barrage of horrible images coming in on CNN from across SE Asia – Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia. I was watching in awe, never having seen such devastation, at least not on this level.
I began to feel helpless, useless, like nothing I was doing that day, that week, that year mattered anymore. In a matter of minutes hundreds of thousands had lost their lives and millions had theirs changed forever. I couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of such a disaster. I knew nothing about South East Asia, nothing about the cultures affected, the region, languages or food but knew I couldn’t help unless I was there. My thoughts were simple, “I have two good hands and they could be helping”, that was all. It was a message more clear in my head than anything in my life and I could not ignore it.
“It showed me that even while dealing with unending pain and heartache, we all possess the power to rise above it…”
A few days later I had informed my college I would be taking some time off from school and a couple weeks after that I was standing alone in LAX, boarding a flight to the other side of the world, not really knowing why but feeling like I needed to. I’ll never forget arriving to Phuket, not knowing the first thing about where I was. I tried to get money out of the ATM but had no idea what the exchange was. I clutched tightly to a small piece of paper I had written down the name of a small village on and reluctantly handed it to a tuk-tuk driver, hoping he’d know where to take me.
What followed was the most impactful and full-filling period of my life up to that point. I met travelers from all over the world, all who came to Phuket drawn by the same feeling – to help strangers in need. I learned about the beautiful Thai culture, the gentle people and the unimaginable suffering they were going through. For the first time in my 20 years on Earth I felt a calling to tell stories, witnessed the power that visuals can have to share emotion and ultimately decided to return to the states and pursue visual journalism as a career.
Upon returning home I switched schools, obtained a photo journalism and documentary filmmaking degree, set off around the world to tell stories, continued to volunteer around the world after natural disasters and have yet to stop chasing the feeling of being in the unknown, exploring the mysterious and pushing myself out of my comfort zone.
Ten years later I have visited 70 countries on 6 continents, seen things I could only ever dream of, traveled with some of my best friends and met people I will never forget.
Ten years later I have a love for people and places I have yet to visit, but will some day.
Ten years later I have a respect for the world around me I never thought I would.
Ten years later I have a desire to keep going, keep exploring, no matter the cost.
Ten years later I know myself so much deeper because of the travels I have taken.
Ten years later I have stories I hold more tightly than any possessions I own.
Ten years later I have memories of people and places I may never see again, who made me who I am today.
Ten years later I cannot be more thankful I listened to my heart and followed a feeling.
I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason, and I am yet to know why traveling, exploring and documenting the world around me has been what I have been called to do, but I will continue none the less. If you asked me when I was growing up where I would be at 30, I never would have believed I’d be sitting in Madrid, Spain writing this post with my family, flown in from Ecuador and Boston, days before I return to Dubai, where I now live. I never would have believed I could have had such amazing experiences, meet such beautiful people or have made such truly unforgettable memories.
The tsunami destroyed a lot of lives, took a lot of lives too soon and altered the paths of many but it also brought together countries, communities and people from all over the world who otherwise never would have met. As I try and struggle to find my small piece in all of that I try and take comfort in the unending good that has come from the relationships formed since then and how they have helped to make the world a better place – one small deed at a time, one person at a time.
The tsunami changed my life, it changed my life for the better. That single wave changed the course of my entire life, changed the way I think, changed the way I act and showed me what mattered in the world, who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live. It showed me life is short, to go after my passions, to follow my feelings, to take a leap and trust in where I would land. It showed me that even while dealing with unending pain and heartache, we all possess the power to rise above it. And above all, the tsunami taught me that we are all the same. We all want to be happy, healthy and loved, no matter our path in life.
Sitting here 10 years later I cannot imagine my life any different than it is now. Not a month goes by I don’t meet someone I can never imagine not knowing, whether in Dubai, Finland, Santiago or Chicago and I owe it all to the moment I was sitting on that cold metal chair in Chicago, glued to the TV, knowing I had to do something. So follow that voice, trust where it leads and take a leap, we only live once and who knows where you could end up, just know the world will make it matter, I promise.
.H . Jeff Johns is the co-founder and editor of Latitude 34 Travel Blog. Through 65 countries on 6 continents he has accumulated a seemingly endless stream of odd information, interesting stories and helpful tips and tricks to better travel. Jeff’s goal is to visit all 204 countries on Earth before he is too senile to remember them all. A graduate of the Visual Journalism program at the Brooks Institute, his true passions lay in honest visual storytelling, documentary filmmaking, Thai food and a good laugh. Together with Marina, they run Latitude 34 Travel Blog as a source of helpful information for those who love to travel or those who simply dream of it. If you have a comment or suggestion, send them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and they’ll respond super fast!