If you follow me on social media, you know that I recently spent five weeks in Okinawa, Japan. This has been a homecoming of sorts for me as my first time living abroad was in this idyllic island. To have the opportunity to live in Okinawa has been one of the greatest experiences I’ve had. In 2003, I was 24 years old and has just started my career as a Marine Officer. Although I stayed pretty busy at work, I took every free moment to discover the island. I bought a second-hand 1992 white Honda Integra (in the US is an Acura, there’s marketing for you!) and drove all around the island, discovering secluded beaches, snorkeling in the East China Sea, eating amazing food, and dancing Salsa with the local Okinawans. Most importantly that experience of living abroad, of shyly trying to speak Japanese at restaurants, using hand gestures to get by, taking risks by ordering something I couldn’t even remotely read defined my adult life view of travel.
I grew up in a small town in Puerto Rico on the southern coast. My dad would take us on road trips around the tiny island and our plane rides consisted of visiting family in Upstate New York. My most exotic trip was in 1986 when I visited Toronto, Canada with my mom and my cousins. I dreamt of faraway lands watching National Geographic with my father. We would analyze the animals and talk about nature. At times we even wept together when we saw an animal die as part of the circle of line in four the wild. I would fantasize of visiting these lands one day. Okinawa was my first opportunity to immerse myself in a culture completely foreign to me and know that to live in a country is radically different than just visiting.
To live in Okinawa has opened my eyes and palate to a new and familiar world at the same time. In many ways, this small island south of mainland Japan reminded me of Puerto Rico. From the block cement home to brave the hurricanes to tiny dirt roads leading you to epic beaches, it was a familiar feeling in a foreign world. 11 years later, I still see those similarities in many other things such as pig feet at the market (in Puerto Rico we love pig’s feet), the smiles of the locals, and random gestures of generosity that are not lost in translation.
Okinawa inspired me to see more of the world and to realize that we, the citizens of this earth can be so different and so similar at the same time. With that realization shortly into my arrival in 2003, it fueled my desire to see more of this beautiful and complicated planet. From there, I traveled to Thailand twice and to Australia. Now at my 36 years, I’ve seen over 40 countries and I am still in awe of the things I encounter.
During this trip, I still had that awe factor. I had it when tasting Agu Pork or having to literally stop my car on the side of the road to take in a sunset, it reaffirms why I love to travel. I still do not understand how people get the opportunity to live in Okinawa and stay in the confines of a base or in their expat communities. It defeats the purpose of the experience. I know firsthand that it is uncomfortable when trying to explain something when both parties cannot communicate in the same language (thankful for Google translate). The fear of the unknown is real but when the first step is taken, you realize how easy and rewarding it is to get by.
So dear Okinawa, thank you for staying beautiful. Thank you for your turquoise beaches, delicious fish, and smiling elderly people. Thank you for taking me in and making my first living abroad experience a memorable one which inspired me to subsequently live in four other countries in Asia and Europe and visit dozens of others. My 8 year old self watching National Geographic with papi knew she wanted to see the world but did not know how at the time. When those opportunities come to see beyond your backyard, take them! If they don’t come to you, create them. To live in Okinawa was the start of years of living and exploring the world. The only regret I have is not staying there longer.